Category Archives: Change
In “Stopping Fascism,” his most recent podcast on “Alternative Radio,” writer and social critic Chris Hedges compares the declining Roman Empire with the US in 2017 – both “dominated by a bloated military and corrupt oligarchy.” He adds that just as getting rid of the vain and incompetent Emperor Commodus in 192 AD didn’t stop Rome’s decline, getting rid of Donald Trump won’t stop ours. “The choice is between inept fascists like Trump and competent fascists like Pence. Our republic and our democracy are dead,” as the result of a four-decade takeover by the conservative elite and the corporate state. Hedges goes on to describe what’s happening and detail the only way he sees to counter it.
“Idiots, seeing in such decay the chance for personal advancement and/or profit, take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor and falsely project economic growth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil, and the air, slash jobs, and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrowing of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. And idiot professors, experts, and specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttress the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore, and fantasy.
There’s a familiar checklist for extinction, and we’re ticking off every item on it. The idiots know only one word: ‘more.’ They’re unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers can’t make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their own vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Hapsburg, Ottoman, Romanoff, Wilhelmine, Pahlavi, and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.
Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality, a sputtering, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This face in the past was hidden, at least to most white Americans, but with the destruction of democratic institutions and the disempowerment of the citizen, the oligarchs and the kleptocrats have become brazen. They no longer need to pretend. They steal and lie openly. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignore the looming catastrophe caused by global warming, and cannibalizing the nation. Forget the paralysis in Congress and the inanity of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president. The crisis we face isn’t embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. It’s a four-decade-long slow-motion corporate coup d’état that’s left corporations and the war machine omnipotent, turned our electoral system into legalized bribery, and elevated public figures who master the arts of entertainment and artifice. Trump is the symptom; he is not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal, and the extrajudicial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment, carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. This assault, done in the name of law and order, put the organs of internal security, from the FBI to Homeland Security, beyond the reach of the law. It began with the creation of corporate- funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research, and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of a horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with the stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights: privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections, and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close adviser to Trump, who spread malicious gossip and false narratives, eagerly amplified by a media devoted to profits and ratings rather than truth, until political debate became burlesque.
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, built counter-institutions to delegitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties, and imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within academia and the press. This campaign, laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was the blueprint for the creeping coup d’état that 45 years later is complete.
Our failure to defend the rights of those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted, and now we’re paying for our complacency, trapped like rats in a cage. A con artist may be turning the electric shocks on and off, but the problem is the corporate state. Until we dismantle that, we’re doomed.
Racist, violent, and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape. They have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. But once citizens are locked out of government and denied a voice, power shifts into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority.
This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in ancient Greece and Rome, the Soviet Union, fascist Germany, fascist Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Once a tiny cabal seizes power – monarchist, Communist, fascist, or corporate – it creates a Mafia economy and a Mafia state.
Corporations are legally empowered to exploit and loot, and it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or Exxon Mobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are legally empowered to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Banks are legally empowered to burden people with student loans that can’t be forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. The animal agriculture industry is legally empowered in many states to charge those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms, where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter, with a criminal offense. Corporations are legally empowered to carry out tax boycotts. Free-trade deals legally empower global corporations to destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water, and food and usurious creditors and lenders have been gutted. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The press, owned by corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold off to corporations that hike rates and deny services. The educational system is being privatized and turned into a species of rote vocational training. Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment, masked by falsified statistics, have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, food shortages, and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed citizens. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million people, few of whom ever got a trial. And a million prisoners now work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves paid pennies on the dollar without any rights or protection.
The amendments to the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads, ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts, and financial, judicial, and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded, and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks. The executive branch of government is empowered to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize US citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists in a process called extraordinary rendition. Those seized can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs, and associations are now criminalized. The state can detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last. The outward forms of democratic participation – voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight, and legislation – are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere, at any time, who can’t protect themselves from corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen is one of master and slave, and the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
The coup destroyed the two-party system, labor unions, education, the judiciary, the press, academia, consumer and environmental protection, our industrial base, communities and cities, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans no longer able to find work that provides a living wage, cursed to live in chronic poverty or locked in cages. Perhaps even more ominously, this coup destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy itself. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values while making war on these values in the service of corporate power, thus rendering these values meaningless.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to adopt a new ideology, telling undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was discredited as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites, opening the door to an authoritarian populism begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith, and the return of a mythical past. It turns out, 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine: the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, even the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. They are the financiers, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists, and business people cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian dream of neoliberalism.
We are entering the twilight phase of capitalism. Capitalists, unable to generate profits by expanding markets, have, as Karl Marx predicted, begun to cannibalize the state like ravenous parasites. Wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing, but by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. This casino capitalism is designed to prey on the desperate young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers burdened by credit-card debt and mortgages, and towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services.
This seminal moment in human history marks the end of a long, tragic tale of plunder and murder by the white race. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting, and polluting the earth in the name of civilization and human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone or anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources, and believed their orgy of blood and gold would never end. Even now, as we stand on the cusp of extinction, we lack the ability to free ourselves from this myth of human progress. The taxes of corporations and the rich are cut, and public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry.
The merging of the self with a capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self- reflection, and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character, but by the material standards set by capitalism: wealth, brands, status, and career advancement. We’ve been molded into a compliant and repressed collective, a conformity characteristic of totalitarian states. And when magical thinking doesn’t work, we’re told and often accept that we are the problem. We must have more faith, we must try harder.
What does resistance look like now? It won’t come by investing hope in the Democratic Party, which didn’t lose the election because of Comey or the Russians, but because it betrayed working men and women on behalf of corporate power and used its machinery to deny the one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who could have defeated Trump, from getting the nomination. Resistance will entail a personal commitment to refuse to cooperate in large and small ways with the machinery of corporate power.
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races, and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead, some are forgotten, most are unknown. These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits: a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence, and a deep empathy that was extended to people different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and to this day I set my life by the standards they set.
You have heard of some, such as Václav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989. Others no less great you may not know, such as the Jesuit priest, Ignacio Ellacuría, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those ordinary people – although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, ‘No people are ordinary’ – who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity who were being persecuted and hunted. To some of these ordinary people I owe my life.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It’s defying injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency, and at times your life. It’s being a lifelong heretic, accepting that the dominant culture and perhaps, and maybe even especially, the liberal elites will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at the New York Times in 2003, after denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I’d known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby.
Ruling institutions – the state, the press, the church, the courts, and academia – mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, which provide them with money, status, and authority. Individuals who defy these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs. All institutions, including the church, as Paul Tillich wrote, are inherently demonic. A life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience won’t allow you to make. Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression ‘a sublime madness in the soul,’ and wrote that ‘nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ This ‘sublime madness’ is the essential quality for a life of resistance. As Daniel Berrigan said, ‘We are called to do the good, insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go.’ As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The only morally reliable people are not those who say “This is wrong” or “This should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.”’ They know that, as Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘If justice perishes, human life has lost its meaning.’ This means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act. And given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason but by faith.
I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith that lies outside of any religious or philosophical creed – what Havel called ‘living in the truth,’ exposing the corruption, lies, and deceit of the state. It’s a refusal to be part of the charade. And it has a cost. ‘You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,’ Havel wrote. ‘You’re thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You’re cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.’
The dissident doesn’t operate in the realm of power. He or she has no desire for office and doesn’t try to charm the public. His or her actions simply articulate their dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost.
The long, long road of sacrifice and defiance that led to the collapse of the Communist regime stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They didn’t try to reform the Communist Party or work within the system; they didn’t even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives, because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue, and they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these rebels – the poets, playwrights, actors, singers, and writers – ultimately triumphed over state and military power, because, however cowed and broken the people around them appeared, their message did not go unheard or unseen.
We may feel powerless, but we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements to follow. It passes on another narrative. And it will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes, but if we persist, we keep this possibility alive.
Dr. Rieux, in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, isn’t driven by ideology, but by empathy – the duty to minister to the suffering of others no matter the cost. Empathy for human beings locked in cages, for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, for Muslims demonized and banned from our shores as they try to flee the wars and terror we created, for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, and for the earth, which gives us life and which is being destroyed, is viewed as seditious by despots.
Accept sorrow, for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation and world? But know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom, and if not joy, a strange transcendent happiness. Because as long as we resist, we keep hope alive.
The days ahead will be dark and frightening, but we must fight for the sacred, we must fight for life, we must fight the forces of death. We fight not only for ourselves, but for those who will come after us – our children. We must not be complicit. We must live in truth. The moment we defy power in any form, we are victorious – when we stand with the oppressed and accept being treated like the oppressed, when we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others to see, when we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, when we keep a mother faced with deportation with her children, and when we mass in the streets to defy police violence. We must turn the tide of fear. We must, by taking the streets, make the ruling elites frightened of us.
To sit idle, to refuse to defy these forces, to be complicit will atrophy and wither our souls. This is not only a fight for life – it’s a fight that gives life. It’s the supreme expression of faith: the belief that no matter how great the power of evil, the power of love is greater. I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. Thank you.”
I highly recommend that you subscribe to the Alternative Radio podcast and look back in your feed so that you can listen to this incredibly eloquent speech. You can also get a CD, an MP3, or a transcript on www.alternativeradio.org.
When “Democracy Now” interviewed two global feminists – Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues, and Congolese activist Christine Deschryver – on 2-14-17, Ensler said that “watching Trump and the people he surrounds himself with, we’re seeing the escalation of rape culture, a predatory mindset.” She added that if so many Americans “felt OK electing a self-confessed sexual assaulter” whose principal advisor, Steve Bannon, “is known to have beaten his wife, we know we haven’t really gotten to the root of rape culture in America. That predatory mindset is affecting everything. We’re gutting regulations on air, on water, and on the earth. We’re escalating extraction. We’re seeing a disparaging of immigrants. This is all part of a predatory mindset – one person in power who does what he wants without the consent of the people around him – exactly what rape culture is. You seize people’s bodies, you take them against their will, and you do whatever you want to them. We bomb Iraqis and destroy people in countries around the world, and then refuse to give them admission and safety.”
On the possibility of Trump signing an executive order that would deregulate conflict minerals, Deschryver said such an order would bring the Democratic Republic of Congo “back 20 years, legitimating all the perpetrators and rapes, and strengthening Central African dictators who want to resume plundering Congo, along with multinational corporations.” Ensler compared this process with the “way oil companies are using state violence in Standing Rock. She then described the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration as “an unbelievable outpouring of women demanding, speaking up for, and cherishing and knowing what their rights are. What did Trump do a day later? He destroyed reproductive rights and the support of NGOs who were offering a discussion about abortion around the world. That was his cynical, violent response to 5 million women and men rising around the world. And that is rape culture. It was like, ‘Really? You think you’re going to have power? Watch what I’m going to do the next day.’ So many of these executive orders are violent acts saying in no uncertain terms, ‘I do what I want, regardless of your needs, regardless of what you want in your body or your life, and I’m going to continue to do that.’”
Deschryver said this is why “grassroots women from all over the world have to be leaders, protecting Mother Nature, because we are Her.” At Deschryver’s project, City of Joy, in Bukavu, eastern Congo, “we receive 90 young women to heal their bodies and minds, and we train them to be leaders. Most of them were raped by militias, by the police, by their partners. And they’re all survivors of atrocities. They stay there for six months, transforming their pain to power. After that, some of them go to our farm to transform pain to planting. There we live with Mother Nature and give back to Her. I think City of Joy has to be an example for the whole world, because right now I think the grassroots women are the ones who’ve paid the most for everything that’s happened. Look in Dakota. Look in Congo, everywhere.” To read more about City of Joy, go to http://drc.vday.org/about-city-of-joy/
When Amy Goodman noted that Steve Bannon had called progressive women, quote, “a bunch of dykes,” Ensler said, “That doesn’t surprise me at all. I think this entire cabal are men who are terrified of women on every level, particularly powerful women. We only have to look at the censoring of Elizabeth Warren to understand that. They’re terrified of black people. They’re terrified of immigrants. They’re terrified of indigenous people. They are terrified of anybody who isn’t a white man or a white man billionaire or white man corporate. In many ways, this is the last major gasp of the patriarchal dragon, and last gasps can be deadly. But they’re not going to move us back to the past. Women aren’t going to stand for having rights being taken away. African Americans aren’t going to stand for it. Immigrants aren’t going to stand for it. We’re too far out to go back in. So now what we’ve got to do is go much further than we’ve ever gone before.”
The women then looked at the recent silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who tried to read into the Senate record a 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King, opposing attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions when he was nominated for a federal judgeship. First, Amy Goodman noted that “Senator Warren was then prohibited from speaking for the remainder of the debate, which was hours-long. Male senators, her Democratic allies, like Senator Sanders, Senator Sherrod Brown, and Senator Merkley, were allowed to read King’s letter without rebuke. What’s also interesting is that when Coretta Scott King sent her testimony 30 years ago to the Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Strom Thurmond, expecting it was going to be entered into the Congressional Record, he never entered it.”
“Right,” agreed Ensler. “The only way Coretta Scott King’s letter could be entered was through the voice of white men. I think it was really disturbing that happened, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Warren to take her seat. It was an incredibly infantilizing moment, his attempt to take a woman of such stature and voice and power and reduce her to nothing. We’re not going to take our seats. That’s not going to happen now. The attempt by this administration to reduce women, to make women feel small, to feel that they don’t exist, to embarrass and shame them, won’t work. We’re past that point. As terrible as all this is, what’s really exciting is to see what this is evoking in people all across this country and around the world. We’re not only going to persist, we are rising up. That’s what we’re seeing this year in One Billion Rising, a global campaign through dance and resistance to fight all the forms of violence, whether it be the violence of racism or climate change or economic deprivations or workers’ rights. We’re seeing more risings this year across the planet, more militant risings, more joyful risings, more fierce risings, more specific and determined risings, because what we’re all feeling is not only are we going to not give up on the rights we have, but this is an opportunity to reformulate our progressive world into a much stronger, more unified, more visionary, more prophetic movement than we’ve ever had before and to really understand that the struggle for antiracism, the struggle against the destruction of the Earth, the struggle for women, the struggle against oppression – these are all one struggle that we’re part of. I’m very encouraged, in the little towns and places all across America, to see people in Texas standing up for Muslims, to see artists doing beautiful posters. There’s more creativity, more outpouring that’s going on right now. I want to finish by saying I think the resistance is the creation. As we’re resisting, we’re beginning to not only mobilize ourselves into a unified force, we’re actually creating the vision of the world we want.” For more on One Billion Rising, go to http://www.onebillionrising.org
“After 15 years of our movement, we were able to put out a call that was an invitation for women and men to rise and dance and resist violence against women across the planet. And that call was taken up, with each community making it their own. Each community took it to the places they wanted to take it and created this global solidarity and force of energy that really made violence against women central stage. Five years ago, we put out this global invitation for women to rise and dance at the places where they wanted to see justice, where they wanted to see violence end. It was massive, and every year, it’s grown and grown. It’s now in 200 countries. Twenty-two states in India are rising, 131 cities in Germany, 90 cities in Poland. We’re seeing all kinds of people – trans women, workers, indigenous people – everyone’s beginning to use this idea of dance resistance, because dance is so powerful. People are being traumatized every day by these executive orders, by horrible statements, by hateful, aggressive reactions. And I think one of the things we have to be very careful about is that we don’t get hooked on a cycle of trauma, retrauma, trauma, retrauma. We have to also come into our bodies and dance and feel our sexuality and feel our joy and feel our energy, because that will give us the fuel to keep fighting and keep resisting and keep creating the way we want to go.”
Deschryver added, “I think Eve had the idea when she was visiting Congo, and she saw all the raped women dancing. That’s what we do in Africa. It’s a way to express our feelings. We have One Billion Rising in Congo, and we rise also for Mother Earth, because Congo is the second lung of humanity. Without the forests in Congo, I think there is no more life all over the world. And we rise also for and with the women. All over DRC they use the word ‘rising’ in English. Every time they see something they disagree with, it’s like, ‘OK, we will rise for this.’”
Ensler: “In New York, on February 14th, we’re having an Artistic Uprising for Revolutionary Love. We’ve joined forces with a wonderful woman named Valarie Kaur and Reverend Barber, who have launched this campaign called Revolutionary Love. And we’ll be rising in Washington Square Park from 6:00 to 9:00. There are 25 amazing artists, a gospel choir, drummers, singers, and poets. And we really want everyone to come, because, really, we need art more than we know. We only have to look to Melissa McCarthy, her brilliant portrayal of Sean Spicer, and see the way artists and irony are changing consciousness.”
In his 3-15 article “Disengage from the spectacle,” posted at http://www.postcarbon.org, Richard Heinberg describes the beginning of the Trump administration as “Empire’s End,” TV’s latest and biggest-ever 24/7 reality show, decades in the making, “with a budget in the trillions, a cast of billions, and a hero-villain more colorful and pathetic than Tony Soprano or Walter White.” He advises that “at least some of us are better off severely limiting our consumption of American national news right now. It’s not that events in Washington won’t affect us – they will. Rather, there are even more important things to attend to, over which we have far greater agency.
First Premise: We’re at the end of the period of general economic growth that characterized the post-WWII era. I’ve written extensively about this, and there’s no need to repeat myself at length here. Suffice it to say that we humans have harvested the world’s cheap and easy-to-exploit energy resources, and the energy that’s left won’t support the kind of consumer economy we’ve built much longer. In order to keep the party roaring, we’ve built up consumer and government debt levels to unsustainable extremes. We’ve also pumped hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and oceans, putting the entire biosphere at risk. Our current economic and political systems also require further, endless growth in order to avert collapse. Almost no one wants to discuss all of this, but everyone senses a change in the air: despite jiggered statistics, workers know their wages have stagnated or fallen in recent years, and members of the younger generation generally expect to earn less that their parents. This generates a persistent low-level sense of fear and dissatisfaction, guaranteeing the type of political shift we’re seeing.
Second Premise: The new U.S. regime is adopting an essentially fascist character. When empires decline, people often turn to leaders perceived as strong, who promise to return the nation to its former glory. In extreme instances, such leaders can be characterized as fascist, using the word in a generic sense to refer to authoritarian nationalism distinguished by one-party rule, the demonization of internal and external enemies (usually tinged with some form of racism or anti-Semitism), controls on press freedoms, and social conservatism. Once a nation turns decisively toward fascism, it rarely turns back, since fascist regimes ruthlessly destroy all opposition. It usually takes a foreign invasion or a complete economic-political-social collapse to reset a national government that’s gone fascist.
Those who get the second premise but miss the first tend to conclude that, at least until the new regime neutralizes significant opposition within the government, there are still things we can do to return life to ‘normal.’ But the end of growth ensures that, beyond a certain point, there will be no more ‘normal.’ We’re headed into new territory no matter what. Taking both premises into account, what are the likely outcomes?
It’s possible that the Trump administration will succeed in rooting out or suppressing opposition not just in Congress and the media, but also in executive-branch departments, including the CIA and FBI. In that case we may see at least a few years of authoritarian national governance punctuated by worsening financial and environmental crises against a backdrop of accelerating national decline. But thanks to Premise One, short-term success won’t lead to a stable regime over the long term. Eventually, no matter how vigorously it suppresses real or perceived enemies, the U.S. federal government will collapse as a result of war, economic crisis, or the simple ongoing erosion of biophysical support systems. At that point a possible trajectory for the nation would be to break apart into smaller geographically defined political entities.
The short-term success of the current regime isn’t assured anyway. It’s still possible that establishmentarian Democratic and Republican members of Congress, working with renegade CIA and FBI mid-level officials and mainstream media outlets, could mire the new leadership in a scandal too deep to survive. Or, if Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, articles of impeachment could be brought against Trump. This wouldn’t guarantee a return to status quo politics in Washington though. Not only does Premise One guarantee that the old status quo is no longer tenable, but on its own terms the political system is now too broken and the nation too divided. In this scenario, pro-regime and anti-regime elites might continue to escalate their attacks on one another until the whole system crashes.
In either case, there’s no national team to root for capable of restoring the status quo ante Trump for long, if that’s even desirable. Under either scenario, competent local governance might provide significantly better living conditions than the national average, but the overall picture is pretty grim. A few years from now I expect that we’ll be in very different territory socially, politically, and economically. Nevertheless, what we do in the meantime could make a big positive difference to people and planet, both over the short term and also over the long term. Here are some specific things you can do:
Disengage from the spectacle. Learn what you need to know in order to assess immediate threats and general trends, but otherwise avoid spending long periods of time ingesting online, print, radio, or televised media. It’s bad for your mental health and takes time away from other items on this list. If you haven’t already done so, make a personal and family resilience plan in case of a temporary breakdown in the basic functions of government (everyone should do this anyway in view of our vulnerability to earthquakes or weather disasters). Are you growing any of your own food? Do you have other practical skills? Do you have stored food and water? Do you have cash set aside? Work to build community resilience as well. If and when national governance breaks down, your local community’s degree of social and biophysical resilience will make all the difference for you and your family. Biophysical resilience relates to local food, water, and energy systems. A socially resilient community is one in which people are talking to and looking out for one another, and institutions for resolving disputes are trusted. Identify organizations that are building both kinds of resilience in your community and engage with them. These could be churches; government and non-profit organizations; food, energy, and health co-ops; neighborhood safety groups; local investment clubs; or Transition groups. Get involved with existing organizations or start new ones. It takes time, but friends like these are more important than money in the bank, especially in times of social and political upheaval. Direct some of your resilience-building efforts toward long-term and nature-centered concerns. – also work that proceeds best in the company of others. Take time as well for the conservation of culture – arts and skills that are their own reward. Connecting with others in your community by enjoying or playing music together, singing, dancing, or making visual art deepens relationships and gives life more dimension and meaning. Participating in protests could enable you to get to know other members of your community or further fragment your community if it’s deeply divided politically. At certain moments in history it’s necessary to take a stand one way or the other on a particular issue, and in the days ahead some issue may require you to plant your flag. This historical moment is also one in which many real heroes and heroines engage in ways that aren’t scripted by any of the elites.”
In an earlier essay, “Traditionalism” through the Lens of Cultural Ecology,” published 2-27 (also on postcarbon.org), Heinberg discusses the political philosophies now vying against each other in Washington. “The common terms liberalism and conservatism have lost their usefulness in navigating these political waters,” he says. Traditionalism is a more useful term, representing “the recent rightward ideological surge in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, but it remains widely unfamiliar and poorly defined. In this essay, I’ll explore the significance of traditionalism using a conceptual tool I call cultural ecology: an inquiry into the ways society shapes itself in response to geography, energy resources, and other environmental factors. My understanding of cultural ecology is derived from the work of anthropologist Marvin Harris, who investigated how societies were transformed by their shifts from hunting-and-gathering to farming, and how they adapted themselves to various geographies (geographer Jared Diamond also made important contributions along these lines).
In the last couple of centuries, a shift as profound as the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago occurred as societies came to base their economies on the use of fossil fuels. Now, as the fossil fuel era starts to wane, wrenching changes in the social, intellectual, political, and religious foundations of modern society should be anticipated. Fossil-fueled society came to full flower during the 20th century. With unprecedented amounts of energy available, economies grew rapidly, and the expectation of further and unending growth became a core feature of economic and political theory, along with the notion that unending progress was also to be expected in social, scientific, and political realms. Capitalism – the private ownership of what Marx called the ‘means of production,’ along with mechanisms for constant reinvestment in the expansion of those means – was never so much a coherent ideology as a set of cobbled-together agreements and institutions. Since capitalism’s tendency (as Marx observed) was to produce ever greater economic inequality along with worsening boom-bust cycles, efforts were made to restrain those tendencies through redistributive taxation and social programs, along with financial, labor, and environmental regulations (which were seen by many as signs of social and political progress). Immigration and globalization served to reduce labor costs, but were also regarded as evidence of progress toward a more egalitarian, multicultural ideal. The acceptance and resettlement of refugees from political strife or natural disasters represented a national expression of humanitarianism. This was the milieu within which liberal and conservative political discourse took place; that discourse questioned relative degrees of power and benefit enjoyed by social groups (e.g., workers versus managers versus owners of capital) but seldom challenged the shared allegiance to growth. Within a growing economy, there was always more for (nearly) everyone, even though some were able to obtain a much higher percentage of the increasing overall wealth.
The fossil fuel era is now failing. Even without climate change, oil, coal, and natural gas are finite resources extracted using the low-hanging fruit principle. While large amounts of these resources remain, each further increment extracted offers declining energy returns on the energy invested in production, an instance of the law of diminishing returns. The situation with respect to oil is approaching crisis: while production rates are high, costs to producers are soaring, and the higher prices needed to cover those costs can’t be sustained because they tend to frustrate economic growth and kill demand for motor fuel. The petroleum industry is between a proverbial rock and hard place, with debt increasing and profit evaporating. Alternative energy sources will need to be introduced at eight to ten times the current rate of solar and wind build-out to avert a climate or a depletion crisis. In any case, it’s highly doubtful that renewable or nuclear energy could support the consumer economy we’ve come to rely on. Since energy is the basis for all economic activity (a fact mainstream economists have been slow to grasp), the end of the fossil fuel era effectively means the end of growth.
Just as a growing economy encouraged the development of the ideological and social constructs of the 20th century, a stagnating or contracting economy is likely to favor a different and uglier politics whose main themes are: longing (and promises) for the return of a lost condition of abundance, blaming social or political groups for the current situation, and calling for the exclusion of others deemed to be competing with ‘us’ for increasingly scarce resources. This could be a description of what would, in ordinary political discourse, be termed far-right nationalist populism.
Insight into ideological Trumpism can be gleaned from the beliefs of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. According to the website Politico, his favored readings ‘tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. They tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone.’ One of Bannon’s influences is said to be blogger Curtis Yarvin, a leader of a movement called Dark Enlightenment that rejects egalitarianism and multiculturalism along with the progressive view of world history. Dark Enlightenment supports strong, centralized political leadership, libertarian economics, and socially conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and immigration. Another Bannon favorite is Nassim Taleb, author of the 2014 book Antifragile, which proposes managing systems in a way that benefits from random events, errors, and volatility.
The term traditionalism crops up in the work of Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1898-1974). A recent New York Times article explored Bannon’s fascination with Evola, ‘a leading proponent of traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.’ Evola’s book Revolt Against the Modern World speculated that the near-universal myth of a lost Golden Age is actually a collective memory of a time when religious and temporal power were united, and society was ruled by spiritual warriors. He believed that the modern world represents a serious decline from that society.
In my first book, Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (1989, revised edition 1995), I explained how the idea of a lost Golden Age has long been associated with various forms of millenarianism, the notion that the current world is degraded and approaching a cleansing crisis from which a revived paradisiacal condition will emerge. Millenarian movements (of which many variants of Christianity and Islam are clear examples) often spring up during times of secular decline or crisis, and typically take the form of a cult led by a charismatic visionary aiming to ‘make the world great again.’ Sometimes a benign character, the leader is more often malign — like Hitler. In my view, the myth of a Golden Age is a deep cultural memory of our shared origin in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, when we lived embedded in nature rather than separate from and dominating it.
To summarize, cultural ecology predicts that a historical moment of change such as ours would provide the ideal growth medium for social and religious movements that glorify a largely imagined past, anticipate a cathartic renewal (which they may seek to precipitate), and promise followers a privileged position in the coming order.
Some of the basic features of traditionalism are evident in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which went through an end-of-growth crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned, ‘We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They’re denying moral principles and traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.’ In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Steve Bannon called Putin a kleptocrat, but spoke approvingly of his philosophy: ‘We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what Putin is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.’ One of Putin’s influence is Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right Russian political philosopher and fan of Julius Evola. Dugin has asserted that, ‘Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, can we become a credible global player.” He’s helped Putin forge alliances with nationalist movements in Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Ataka Party in Bulgaria, and Hungary’s Jobbik Party. Putin’s friend Viktor Orbán, now prime minister of Hungary, has promised to turn his country into an ‘illiberal democracy’ modeled on Russia. He is virulently anti-Muslim, seeing Islam as a ‘rulebook for another world.’
Traditionalism demands an enemy, and the fear and loathing of Islam is a key feature of far-right populism in both Europe and the U.S. Here’s Steve Bannon on the dangers of what he calls ‘jihadist Islamic fascism’: ‘I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.’ The expectation of an ultimate cathartic clash between a traditionalist Christian West and jihadist Islam is of course shared by radical Islamist movements such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which themselves represent brands of millenarianism. (The description of the relationship between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations” appeared first in a 1957 speech at Johns Hopkins University by British orientalist Bernard Lewis, and Harvard professor Samuel Huntington popularized the idea.)
Societies in decline or crisis don’t always elevate far-right leaders and social movements. The medieval Joachimites and Brethren of the Free Spirit (whose followers endured plagues and wrenching poverty), and the 17th century Ranters in Britain (where small farmers were losing their land to the wealthy) promoted a radically egalitarian vision of human relations. Much more recently, a period of economic contraction and crisis in the United States produced one of the country’s most left-leaning presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, it could be argued that Barack Obama was an FDR-like figure tasked to address the global financial crisis of 2008, but that his too-tepid response (or the fact that the crisis was too deeply-rooted to yield fully to Keynesian formulae) then opened the way for far-right Trumpism.
Traditionalism therefore characterizes only one phase of the cultural and political aftermath to the end of growth. While for the foreseeable future (and in certain nations or regions) circumstances may favor strong leaders who demonize racial or religious groups and promise a restoration of forsaken values, their regimes may disappear as quickly as they arrived on the scene. Polities may fragment, with formerly united regions choosing to follow separate paths. Currently, large swathes of America (accounting for over half its total population) are proving highly resistant to the Trumpist mental virus, and much the same could be said with regard to Europe.
A far-left millenarian movement could also arise, a form of militant egalitarianism like Bolshevism or Mao’s Red Brigades that could potentially prove as dangerous as any other brand of extreme millenarianism. But our future options need not be limited to competing brands of millenarianism. Individuals and communities can focus on practical efforts to bring the greatest good to the most people (and other species) over the longest time by rethinking and redesigning production and consumption patterns in anticipation of the failure of existing consumerist institutions. The word ‘good’ in the previous sentence is of course open to definition and redefinition, but even a meager understanding of ecology and psychology would suggest that it should point to values like diversity (permitting the flourishing of many kinds of species and cultures), happiness, health, autonomy, and sustainability.” Heinberg then gives the same recommendations as in his 3-15 post. He concludes: “Millenarianism is a collective psychological expression of stress and powerlessness. The antidote is to act. In a time of division, unite. In a time of demonization, reach out.” He then recommends a new Post Carbon Institute online course called ‘Think Resilience: Preparing Communities for the Rest of the 21st Century,'” available at education.resilience.org.
On February 24th, I posted my notes on “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation” by Jeff Chang (2016), saying that it’s the best book on race in this country I’ve seen for awhile, and adding that if we don’t finally get race right, nothing will be right. I’ve redone those notes to shorten and clarify them, in the hope that more of you will read them. Apologies to Jeff Chang, whose book is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but I think I’ve gotten the gist of it, and better this than nothing.
Beginning with what he calls the “crisis cycle,” Chang says, “We’re living in serious times. Since 2012, the names of the fallen – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, the list never seems to cease – have catalyzed collective outrage and grief. In the waning years of a Black presidency, we saw a proliferation of images of Black people killed in the streets and the rise of a national justice movement to affirm that Black lives matter. After the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the idea that there had ever been a post-racial moment has come to seem desperately naïve. Meanwhile, Donald Trump focuses the anxieties loosed by white vulnerability onto the bodies of migrants, Muslims, Blacks, women, and all the others who don’t deserve the gift of America. It seems clearer than ever that we as a nation are caught in a bad loop of history – from 1965 to 1992 to now. Race makes itself known in crisis, in the singular event that captures a larger pattern of abuse and pain. We react to crisis with a flurry of words and, sometimes, actions. Then the reaction sparks its own backlash of outrage, justification, and denial, leading to exhaustion, complacency, and paralysis. And before long, we’re back in crisis.
Inequity and injustice aren’t abstract things – they impact real people. In terms of poverty, annual income, wealth, health, housing, schooling, and incarceration, persistent gaps separate whites from Black, Latino, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian populations. In the specific case of premature death – defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as death among persons under the age of 75 – the death rate of Blacks is over 50% higher than that of whites, and higher than that of all other major ethnic groups, except some American Indian cohorts. Only a small part of this statistic is attributable to homicide and that favorite digression of conservative pundits, ‘Black-on-Black violence.’ Rather, it’s the result of large disparities in access to quality food; regular and preventive health care; and diseases like cancer, stroke, and HIV. A shockingly large portion is the result of an African American infant mortality rate more than double that of white Americans, triple that of Swiss citizens, and five times that of Japanese citizens. Racism kills.
Extrajudicial police shootings have been the organizing spark of the Movement for Black Lives. But they’re based on segregation and resegregation, now mostly happening out of our sight. Whether through white flight, the optics of diversity, or metaphorical and actual wall building, the privileged spare themselves the sight of disparity, and foreclose the possibility of empathy and transformation. We live in a time when merchants of division draw us away from mutuality and toward the undoing of democracy. David Graeber proposes that their demagoguery isn’t different from schoolyard bullying. Trump, the silver spoon–fed child who as a second grader punched his music teacher in the eye, aspired ‘to be the toughest kid in the neighborhood.’ Graeber: ‘When researchers question children on why they don’t intervene to protect the bullied, the majority say they didn’t like what happened, and didn’t much like the bully, but decided that getting involved might mean ending up on the receiving end of the same treatment.’ Reactionaries don’t need to sustain the belief or the anger of the fearful; they need only the silence and complicity of the masses. The culture wars continue through justificatory innocence and willed inaction, allowing the structures that produce inequality and segregation to persist. If most Americans recoil from the kind of excessive, gleeful, cynical bigotry of someone like Donald Trump, they’re demobilized by denial (‘there is no problem’) or justification (‘there’s a problem but I can’t solve it’). Trump supporters are told that when demonstrators pour into the streets to protest police killings of Blacks, they’re supporting the killing of cops. ‘Black lives matter’ isn’t a call to end state violence against Blacks, and in that way to end state violence against all – it’s hatred of whites, a premonition of racial apocalypse.”
Ever since the Supreme Court decided in the 1979 Bakke case that affirmative action, an effort to redress hundreds of years of putting Blacks last was essentially anti-white, efforts at fairness have gone by the boards. The appearance of diversity on college campuses and culturally is just that, Chang says – a matter of what he calls “optics.” He also brings up an interesting point about free speech, noting that “racial attacks and hate speech, as well as the ‘anti-PC’ defense of them, are proof that free speech isn’t a neutral good equally available to all, because tolerance of hate speech isn’t tolerance borne by the community at large – it’s a psychic tax imposed on those least able to pay. On the other hand, protest, when it comes from those at the bottom, can often be a profound proposition about how to make the world better for all. Campuses, like the country itself, are seeing rising levels of hate and intolerance, the tragic result of over a quarter century of intensifying racial inequality and resegregation and a silence over these selfsame issues. Despite more and more diverse applicants, universities continue to admit fewer Black and brown students and provide them with less support. In 2012, a system-wide survey of over 100,000 students, staff, and faculty by the University of California found that one in four respondents ‘had personally experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct’ on campus.’ The most competitive Black and Latino students declined admission offers at places where affirmative action had been gutted, like the University of California and University of Michigan, and instead gathered at historically Black colleges and universities and private, elite universities that promised community and support.”
Chang also addresses “cultural equity,” pointing out that “culture, like food, sustains us and shapes our relations with each other. An inequitable culture is one in which people don’t have the same power to create, access, or circulate their practices, works, ideas, and stories. To say that American culture is inequitable is to say that it moves us away from seeing each other in our full humanity, making the creation of a more just society less likely. Cultural equity isn’t just about representation. It’s also about access and power. Who has access to the means of production of culture? Who has the power to shape it?” Much of this is an issue of funding. “Arts produced by diverse groups of people are socially valuable because they offer us ideas, technologies, and values that help us figure out how to live together. A vital, equitable culture offers us a sense of individual worth, bolsters our collective adaptability, and forms a foundation for social progress. In that sense, cultural diversity is just like biodiversity – at its best, it functions like a creative ecosystem. The final product of culture isn’t a commodity – it’s society. We’re far from that ideal.”
In the next section of the book, Chang describes how resegregation has taken place. “Americans are sorting themselves into new geographic alignments that will define political polarization in the coming decades. Cities are becoming wealthier and whiter. Aging suburbs are becoming poorer and darker, and being abandoned, policed, and contained the way communities of color in inner cities were for the past century.” Ferguson, Missouri, north of St. Louis, is an example of this. “Once a ‘sundown town’ where Blacks weren’t allowed after dark, between 1970 and 2010, it went from 1% to 67% Black.” Why? Because of the elimination of public and affordable housing in the former St. Louis ghettoes, a trend seen in many other cities during the 1990s and 2000s. Suburban communities, Chang says, are now either predominantly Black (and impoverished) or predominantly white and better off.
“Power in most of the municipalities outside of St. Louis remained in the hands of whites, and they reorganized their systems of policy-making, policing, and justice to exploit poor Black populations. Greater St. Louis remains one of the most hypersegregated regions in the country, alongside Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit, all key nodes on the map of the Movement for Black Lives. When the economic crash came in 2008, Blacks and Latinos were 70% more likely than whites to lose their homes to foreclosure, and the highest rates of foreclosure were in racially integrated neighborhoods.
At a minute after noon on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown Jr. and his friend Dorian Johnson were stopped by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for jaywalking. Two minutes later,” a man on a nearby apartment balcony, took a photo of two policemen standing watch over Brown’s lifeless body. Soon people were congregating on the behind a police line, and words and images were spreading over the internet. It would be twenty minutes before police covered Brown’s body. Witnesses, including Dorian Johnson, told reporters that Mike had had his hands up when the cop shot him. Family members, including Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, and father, Michael Brown, Sr., were kept away from the body. Some nodded in agreement when McSpadden gave an interview to a local television reporter. ‘You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many Black men graduate? Not many! Because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel like, “I don’t got nothing to live for anyway, they gon’ try to take me out anyway.”’ People began chanting, ‘Kill the police!’ Gunshots were heard nearby, and dozens more county and Ferguson cops, almost all white, were called. They arrived wearing bulletproof vests and brandishing assault rifles. They walked snarling police dogs up the driveways of the apartment complex, pushing people back toward their homes.
Hours after Brown was killed, his neighborhood resembled a war zone. On West Florissant, the street from which Brown and Johnson had been walking home, what residents would come to call ‘the tanks’ made their first appearance. County tactical operations units deployed Lenco BearCat vehicles, designed for SWAT teams to use ‘in hostile Urban Environments,’ outfitted with half-inch-steel ballistic armor, two-and-a-half-inch-thick windows, and eleven gun ports. Through it all, Michael Brown’s body lay under the burning sun. It would be more than four hours before his body was removed from the street. In the dimming daylight, firefighters hosed down the road and the police took down the yellow tape. The crowd followed Lezley McSpadden into the middle of Canfield Drive. Someone had given her a bouquet of roses. She removed the petals and gently dropped them to mark the spot where her son’s blood still stained the road. People placed flowers and lit candles.
Others, including representatives of the Organization for Black Struggle, one of the area’s oldest racial justice organizations, were making signs and talking strategy about how to get answers from the police. Back on Canfield Drive, a dumpster behind the apartments had been set on fire, and authorities moved in. Pushed back against the curb by growling police dogs straining at their leashes, residents and others who’d earlier gathered around the scene of the crime were now surrounded by police on all sides. Near the lamppost that had marked the edge of the yellow tape line, they held their hands in the air, chanting, ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot!’ One cop walked his dog over to the memorial that McSpadden had made for her son and let it pee on the flowers and candles. And after the rest of the policemen got into their vehicles to leave, they rolled over what was left of the memorial. In the days to come, these memorials to Michael Brown Jr. would be destroyed over and over, but every time they were torched or removed, people returned to put them up again. They were determined that this time the police wouldn’t get away with it. So began the daily protests in Ferguson against police brutality that continued unbroken for hundreds of days. It would become the longest rebellion in the history of the United States against police brutality.
Two weeks after Michael Brown was killed, the Arch City Defenders, a group of progressive St. Louis–area lawyers, released an influential white paper that exposed the link between policing, poverty, racial profiling, and city budget revenues. Throughout the county, Blacks experienced stops, searches, and arrests at much higher rates than whites. In 2013 the Ferguson court disposed of 24,352 warrants – more warrants than there were residents. Blacks, who made up 67% of the city and 6% of the police force, suffered 86% of traffic stops and 93% of arrests. Court fines and fees were the second-largest source of city revenue. A single violation – whether for a broken car taillight or failing to subscribe to the city’s garbage collection service – could set off a cycle of disaster leading to jail time, eviction, loss of child custody, and denial of loans and jobs. The Defenders called it a ‘modern debtors’ prison scheme.’ A Department of Justice investigation launched after the protests over Michael Brown’s killing found that Ferguson had implemented intentionally racist and unconstitutional practices in its policing and courts system. Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson’s jaywalking stop wasn’t unusual. It was routine. ‘From 2011 to 2013,’ the DOJ noted, ‘African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.’ The DOJ also stated bluntly that ‘Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.’ In one of its more stunning passages, the DOJ outlined how completely Ferguson’s system dehumanized its residents: ‘Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They’re inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.’ Black residents of St. Louis County had long lived with this.
On Sunday, August 10, 2014, inside the Ferguson Police Department conference room, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters that Michael Brown had assaulted a police officer. He added that the officer had been placed on administrative leave, refused to give his name, and suggested that he might be returned to active duty. Thousands of demonstrators were in the streets, and armored Humvees and BearCat vehicles, riot-ready officers, canine units, and SWAT teams rolled down the hill into Ferguson. They swept people back toward the QuikTrip, which was looted and set on fire. After midnight, cops fired tear gas volleys all along West Florissant to clear the area.
By Monday, Day Three, the canine units had been replaced by snipers sitting atop armored vehicles equipped with ear-shattering acoustic riot-control devices and groups of paramilitary police toting tear gas launchers, training their night-vision goggles, their M4 carbines, and twelve-gauge shotguns on demonstrators. The burned-out QuikTrip had become a gathering place for the resistance. People distributed water and food and made signs. Street-theater artists performed plays. Buddhist monks prayed. Bands played. The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery wrote, ‘This was their Tahrir Square, their Tiananmen Square. The place each night where they would make their stand.’ Then police began firing tear gas canisters into people’s yards and at people’s cars, and over the loudspeakers the cops told people to go home. One woman stood on her lawn and yelled back, ‘This is my home. You’re the ones who need to go home.’
On Wednesday night, Day Five, the street clashes reached a climax. Police were pelted with rocks, bottles, bricks, even Molotov cocktails. Cops fired stun grenades, beanbag rounds, Stinger balls that worked like flash-bangs, and PepperBalls – ammo that someone described as ‘Pokémon balls that spit out gas.’ The next morning, Attorney General Eric Holder, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, and other politicians, left and right, decried the police militarization. St. Louis Police Chief Samuel Dotson pulled his officers back from Ferguson, publicly denouncing the county police’s warlike tactics. Even military personnel were outraged. When police pointed rifles at people’s chests, one retired army officer told the Washington Post, ‘That’s not controlling the crowd. That’s intimidating them.’ The journalist Radley Balko noted that the police seemed to have lost their mission: ‘The soldier’s job is to annihilate a foreign enemy, to kill people and break things. A police officer’s job is to keep the peace and to protect our constitutional right’.” The same day, Governor Jay Nixon appointed Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, an African American resident of Florissant, to lead the command. Johnson met with Michael Brown’s family and marched with demonstrators. Thursday evening was the quietest of the week. But in the community, there was still a profound sense that police were protecting their own. On Friday, Day Seven, at QuikTrip, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson held a press conference to announce that the name of the officer who had shot Michael Brown was Darren Wilson. But before he did, Jackson described Brown’s August 9th robbery of Ferguson Market, immediately preceding his confrontation with Wilson.
Ferguson was now a national story, largely shaped by the people and the protesters. By the end of Friday, the Pew Research Center found, more than 7.9 million tweets had been generated under the hashtag #Ferguson. Social media fueled local and national interest, and organizing networks were forming. In the days that followed, Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard, but demonstrations continued daily from morning to night. ‘This is civil rights 2.0,’ said young visual artist Damon Davis. ‘It’s not suits and ties anymore. It’s tattoos and dreads and queer women of color out here.’ Community meetings drew together over fifty different organizations to coordinate planning and training. In order to accommodate the needs of the growing movement, the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle brought in leaders and organizers from Oakland, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. Between August and October, they trained over 200 organizers in nonviolent direct action, and hundreds more in areas such as emergency response, medical support, crowd control, communications, and de-escalation.
Central to the national resistance was an organization called Black Lives Matter, started by San Francisco Bay Area organizer Alicia Garza, Los Angeles artist and activist Patrisse Cullors, and New York/Phoenix–based organizer Opal Tometi. On August 10th, as #Ferguson exploded on social media, so did #blacklivesmatter. The genesis of the idea had come the summer before after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. After the verdict was announced, Garza posted to her Facebook page, ‘I can’t breathe. NOT GUILTY.’ Her feed filled with posts from people who said they weren’t surprised. ‘That’s a damn shame in itself,’ she responded. ‘I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.’ She added, ‘Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.’ Cullors’s activism had sprung from the brutal beating of her brother by Los Angeles County jail officers. Garza also worried about her brother, in whom she saw Trayvon Martin. That night, the two women, who’d known each other for years through organizing circles, talked for a long time about Zimmerman, Martin, their brothers, and what needed to happen. Cullors put a hashtag in front of Garza’s refrain, posted it to Facebook, and suddenly a big idea cohered. The next day, the two contacted Tometi, a friend and communications expert, and a social-media campaign was born. ‘Black Lives Matter’ articulated their impatience with the politics of respectability – taking care in presenting oneself publicly to avoid saying or doing anything that would reflect badly on Blacks, reinforce negative racial stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies…Obama-style politics, in other words. The Black Lives Matter activists were pro-queer feminists who worked with those on the margins of society: incarcerated people, domestic workers, and migrants. They thought of themselves as defiantly intersectional, and offered an expansive notion of what they called ‘Black love,’ a vision of radical diversity. Garza wrote, ‘Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black undocumented folks, folks with [criminal] records, women, and Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.’ Black Lives Matter challenged not only the content but the form of respectability politics – the traditional, charismatic Black messiah model that typically privileged straight male leadership and top-down, hierarchical infrastructures, such as the Black church. Instead, the movement drew on the methods and examples of Bayard Rustin, the gay man who led the mobilization of the 1963 March on Washington while eschewing the spotlight; Ella Baker, the woman who’d trained generations of organizers while strongly advocating modes of decentralized leadership; and Assata Shakur, the Black Panther activist exiled to Cuba who was still on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and had written the lines they adopted as their mantra: ‘It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.’
Those who opposed the movement by arguing that ‘all lives matter’ couldn’t see the cold inhumanity of their stance. The systematic denigration of Black lives was inescapable, whether in shortened life expectancy or the growing list of extrajudicial murders. As always in the US, this conversation about race defaulted to a discussion about the needs of whites. But change would come only through a struggle to transform how everyone saw and treated Black lives. If Black lives mattered to all, then all lives really would matter.
The national network of organizations issued a set of demands, including the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson, the ending of police militarization, and reinvestment in resegregated, impoverished communities. To further these demands, organizers agreed to launch four days of civil disobedience they would call Ferguson October. But as the start of protests neared, the area was shaken by three more officer-involved extrajudicial killings. The first, just three miles away from Canfield Green and less than two weeks after Michael Brown was killed, involved the murder of Kajieme Powell, a mentally ill man who’d stolen two energy drinks from a store, then walked in circles taunting police. He has a steak knife, but hadn’t drawn it. Then, on September 19th, 21-year-old Kimberlee Randle-King was arrested in Pagedale, a small north county town. She’d been on her way to pick up her two children at her grandmother’s house, but ended up in a group of people arguing and tussling on the street. When she was taken in, police found Randle-King had seven ‘failure to appear’ warrants for traffic and vehicle violations and prepared to take her back to a cell. The police report said that she ‘became “hysterical,’ claiming she would lose her ‘job, house, and babies.’ Kimberlee then said, ‘I’m gonna die if I go back there.’ A half hour later, Randle-King was found dead in her cell, hanging by her own T-shirt. The last incident occurred on October 8th, two days before the start of Ferguson October. When VonDerrit Myers and some friends emerged from a night market after buying sandwiches, an off-duty cop who was working a nighttime security job in his police uniform stopped them on a ‘pedestrian check.’ The cop identified at least one of the group as suspicious and carrying a weapon. Myers and his friends ran, and the cop gave chase before losing them. Myers went up to his apartment, then came back down to the street, where he encountered the cop again. What happened next remains a mystery. There were no official witnesses. But when it was all over, the cop had unloaded an entire clip, and Myers had been shot seven times in the back. Police said Myers had been killed in a shootout and that there was gunshot residue on his hand to prove it. They noted Myers had been wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, a consequence of being out on bail for recent charges of unlawful use of a weapon and resisting arrest. The media was fed Instagram photos of Myers posing with guns. But in the days that followed, the police modified their account of the night’s events several times, talking about bushes that Myers had supposedly shot from that didn’t exist, and changing the make of the gun they said Myers carried. The officer, whose name wouldn’t be made public, refused to be interviewed by a prosecutor. Myers’s family argued that a gun had been planted on him, and that he had been executed. The prosecutor agreed that the bullets fired at him could have explained the residue evidence, and Myers’s DNA didn’t turn up on the gun that was found. Yet the prosecutor still decided not to take the case to the grand jury, stating that the evidence was inconclusive.
Ferguson October began on October 13th. In the dramatic week that followed, tens of thousands marched. Young Activists United occupied the St. Louis city hall rotunda. Bearing signs that said ‘Stop Killing Us”’ and chanting ‘Black lives matter,’ Millennial Activists United shut down the Plaza Frontenac shopping center. Protesters also closed Emerson Electric Corporation, and shut down two Walmarts and a Democratic Party fund-raiser. At the police station, dozens more were arrested, including Cornel West and other leaders. A student-led protest at St. Louis University led to a weeklong encampment by a group called Occupy SLU, resulting in a negotiated resolution that committed the university to more discussions about race, funding for Black student recruitment and retention, African American studies, and a community center committed to addressing inequality in the area, and a sculpture.
On October 4th, fifty ‘Artivists’ interrupted a St. Louis Symphony performance of Brahms’s Requiem, standing throughout the hall to sing a version of ‘Which Side Are You On?’ The original song, written by Florence Reece for the bitterly fought 1930s Appalachian coal strike, included the words ‘They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there.’ The Artivists changed the lyrics to ‘Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all,’ and unfurled fifteen-foot-high banners that read ‘Rise Up and Join the Movement,’ ‘Racism Lives Here,’ and ‘Requiem for Mike Brown 1996–2014.’ Some in the overwhelmingly white crowd applauded, others could be heard saying, ‘He’s a thug.’ Most remained silent. On another evening the Artivists carried a funeral casket covered in cracked, mirrored glass to the front of the police line on South Florissant. ‘Look into the mirror,’ one of the protesters told them. ‘We’re human too.’
On November 17th, as the St. Louis area girded for Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s announcement of the grand jury decision, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared another state of emergency. Public schools in Ferguson and Jennings canceled classes. Police restocked tear gas, flex cuffs, and ‘less-lethal’ munitions. The National Guard was placed on alert. Stores throughout the city and county boarded up their windows. The grand jury announcement was still a week away, and already it felt like the worst hidden secret in Missouri was a coming non-indictment.
Damon Davis of the Artivists noticed that many of his friends were showing signs of stress and trauma. He wanted to create a work that would raise their morale, and lift up their message against the violence of the state and the media’s anticipation of tear gas and fire. The result was a project he called All Hands On Deck. Davis and others created 51-inch-high posters of the hands of local Black and white organizers and activists. Davis had photographed their hands on white tables or against the snow. ‘Hands are what you do work with,’ he explained, ‘and it’s time for you to get up and help work on this if you want it to be any better.’ He got permission from West Florissant businesses whose windows had been covered with plywood to paste the posters on the boards. All Hands On Deck tapped desires coursing across time and place – the 9,000-year-old black, red, white, yellow, and brown cave-art hand stencils at Patagonia’s Cueva de las Manos that shouted, ‘We are here!’; John Heartfield’s street poster, Five Fingers Has the Hand, taunting the Nazi party from Berlin walls during the 1928 Weimar election season; and the gloved hands that John Carlos and Tommie Smith thrust into the air on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, their fingers closed into fists. There was affirmation, defiance, and power here, but something else too – a radical vision of community. At the root of the pre-riot frenzy was the same kind of fear that had left Mike Brown dead in the street, that had driven a century of segregation and resegregation in the city and county. But these posters transformed the plywood from enclosing shields of fear into open walls that revealed the breadth of community: a child, a preacher, a barista, an activist, and others in Black-and-white. Authority demanded submission. But when people raised their hands together, they might be demanding recognition, defying injustice, or even reveling in collective joy.
On November 24th, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury’s refusal to indict Officer Darren Wilson, and the predicted clashes between demonstrators and police followed: television stations ran hi-def split-screen images of President Barack Obama urging calm in the streets as police teargassed Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson. In St. Louis, organizers and activists gathered at a bustling café at the edge of Tower Grove Park, not far from where VonDerrit Myers had been killed. Owned and run by a white radical named Mo Costello, MoKaBe’s had long served as a gathering spot for activists from the Occupy, queer rights, and Black Lives Matter movements. Two weeks before, Mo had announced on Facebook that she would keep the spot open 24 hours a day for activists. That night, the intersection at Grand and Arsenal in front of MoKaBe’s filled with paramilitary police and armored vehicles. Police issued clearance orders while the crowd mocked them. Protesters backed onto the sidewalk and filled MoKaBe’s. Dozens, including Amnesty International observers, parents, and children, gathered inside, drinking free cups of hot chocolate. When windows were broken along Grand, police moved to clear the corner, firing rubber bullets at people on the sidewalk, then shooting tear gas canisters onto MoKaBe’s patio and through the café’s front door. Gas filled the interior, and dozens of choking patrons fled into the basement. As the stricken were treated with eye drops, riot cops marched behind the coffee house to fire more tear gas into the residential neighborhood to prevent patrons from leaving. St. Louis University professor and civil rights lawyer Brendan Roediger negotiated with the police for a way for the patrons to leave. Finally, they filed out of the café one by one with their hands up, and walked slowly away from the police line.
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou had been at MoKaBe’s on the morning of the 24th to attend an urgent meeting about preparations for the grand jury announcement. The young organizers had received him with a warmth and deference that they showed only a handful of other members of the clergy. Back in the earliest days of the protests, mainstream clergy positioned themselves as brokers to the white elite. Then it became clear to the protesters that some of those same clergy were negotiating away their rights, and when the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson came to town, they received the cold shoulder from street activists. In October, at a massive interfaith gathering at St. Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena, the same activists grew tired of the empty talk from church and civil rights leaders. They began chanting to let young people speak. When Tef Poe took the stage, they cheered. He told the leaders he trusted the shirtless, bandanna’d boys and the young girls who’d gone truant to be at the protests more than the elders. ‘This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement,’ he cried. ‘Get off your ass and join us!’
When Reverend Sekou heard, on the night of Tuesday 11-24, that hundreds of police had again massed at the corner of Grand and Arsenal in front of MoKaBe’s, he came to the café, mounted a table, and quieted the crowd. ‘We’ve already won,’ he said as he pointed back to the cops across the street. ‘They don’t do that when we’re losing.’ He asked the crowd, ‘What does a heartbeat sound like?’ Someone said, ‘You mean the way it’s going like boomboomboomboom right now?’ The crowd roared. ‘On a normal day, Sekou said, ‘your heart goes…’ And he hit his chest twice with his hand. The crowd joined him, pounding their hearts into a rhythm that could be heard across the street. Sekou turned to face the police. ‘You are on the wrong side of history, and we have already won,’ he told them. ‘We are peacefully gathered here in the tradition of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. This multiracial gathering is possible because of nonviolence. And that is the heartbeat of democracy that you hear. And so whoever your captain is, stand down. Go home. We’ll be alright.’ All along the police line, stiffened backs seemed to wilt. Then the cops turned to the left in file, turned again, and marched silently away down Grand Street.”
Chang ends his book by saying that “if we are to undo resegregation and racialized exclusion, all of the forms of refusal, denial, and justification that preserve the structures of privilege will have to be undone to make room for the most marginalized. We often think of revolution as something to be won in bloodshed through war and the violent seizure of power. But as Grace Lee Boggs has put it, the next revolution might be better thought of as ‘advancing humankind to a new stage of consciousness, creativity, and social and political responsibility.’ Her revolution would require us to move away from finding new ways to divide and rule, and instead move toward honoring and transforming ourselves and our relations to each other.
We need to be roused to the inequity in our neighborhoods, our schools, our metro areas, our justice system, and our culture. Ending resegregation is about understanding the ways we allow ourselves to stop seeing the humanity of others. It’s about learning to look and never stopping. James Baldwin’s most revolutionary and misunderstood idea, notes the intellectual Robin D. G. Kelley, was that love is agency. ‘For him it meant to love ourselves as black people; it meant making love the motivation for making revolution; it meant envisioning a society where everyone is embraced, where there is no oppression, where every life is valued – even those who may once have been our oppressors.’ This didn’t mean that Blacks should capitulate before whiteness and systemic racism, but exactly the opposite. He wrote, ‘To love all is to fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, even on behalf of those who think they hate us.’ Each of us is left with the question: Can we, given all the pain we’ve had inflicted upon us and that we’ve inflicted upon others, ever find our way toward freedom for all? Redemption is out there for us if we’re always in the process of finding love and grace.”
Just as the 1-21-17 Women’s March on Washington started me wondering where women stand now, Rebecca Solnit’s 2015 book Men Explain Things to Me came into my hands to provide the answer. Solnit starts her book by relating an experience in which a man talked over her on a subject in which she was an expert and he wasn’t. Reflecting on the incident, she realized that this common experience is one end of the misogyny spectrum, with rape and murder at the other…The tendency of some men to dominate conversations and undervalue/question women’s contributions, Solnit says, “crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. Credibility is a basic survival tool. For example, getting a restraining order requires the credibility to convince the court that someone is a menace and then getting the cops to enforce it. Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert control over their right to exist…At the heart of the struggle of feminism to give rape, domestic violence, and workplace sexual harassment legal standing as crimes has been the necessity of making women credible and audible. I believe women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, from the mid-1970s on…I think we’d understand misogyny and violence against women better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape, murder, harassment, and intimidation – online, at home, in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear. Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.
There is a reported rape in the United States every 6.2 minutes [the total number of rapes may be five times that number – one a minute], and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. There’s a pattern of violence against women that’s broad, deep, horrific – and incessantly overlooked. Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or with lurid details gets attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, and on every continent including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news.
So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over a thousand homicides of that kind a year, meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular kind of terror.
It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to see where violence comes from and think about we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly, the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite their availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90% of the time.
Here’s a single incident that happened in my city while I was researching the subject in January 2013, one of many local incidents that made the local papers that month in which men assaulted women: “A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man’s sexual advances while she walked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood late Monday night, a police spokesman said today. The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her. When she rejected him, the man slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm.” The man, in other words, framed the situation as one in which his chosen victim had no rights or liberties, while he had the right to control and punish her. This should remind us that violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you. Murder is the extreme version of that authoritarianism, where the murderer asserts he has the right to decide whether you live or die, the ultimate means of controlling someone. This may be true even if you are obedient, because the desire to control comes out of a rage that obedience can’t assuage. Whatever fears, whatever sense of vulnerability may underlie such behavior, it also comes out of entitlement, the entitlement to inflict suffering and even death on other people. It’s a system of control,” acted out by men of all nationalities, races, and social classes.
“A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. It’s the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Center for Disease Control. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States. ‘Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war, and traffic accidents combined,’ writes Nicholas Kristof, one of the few prominent figures to address the issue regularly.
Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice – and we hardly address. The usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence as a given. There’s no good reason (and many bad reasons) colleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators.
There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that’s encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I’ve seen who get it, who think it’s their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online, and in marches. Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy. Domestic violence statistics are down significantly from earlier decades (even though they’re still shockingly high), and a lot of men are at work crafting new ideas and ideals about masculinity and power. Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free or enslaved together. Surely the mindset of those who think they need to win, to dominate, to punish, and to reign supreme is far from free.”
Solnit goes on to point out the connection between misogyny and other forms of oppression, using the example of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, “the extraordinarily powerful head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a global organization that’s created mass poverty and economic injustice, sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid and immigrant from Africa, in a hotel’s luxury suite in New York City…Her name was Africa, his was IMF. He set her up to be pillaged, to go without health care, to starve. He laid waste to her to enrich his friends. Her name was Global South. His name was Washington Consensus. But his winning streak was running out, and her star was rising…The IMF’s assault on the poor is part of the great class war of our era, in which the rich and their proxies in government have endeavored to aggrandize their holdings at the expense of the rest of us. Poor countries in the developing world paid first, but the rest of us are paying now, as those policies and the suffering they impose come home to roost via right-wing economics that savages unions, education systems, the environment, and programs for the poor, disabled, and elderly in the name of privatization, free markets, and tax cuts…His name was privilege, but hers was possibility. His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch but also make and tell in the weeks, months, years, decades to come.”
Next Solnit theorizes that the real reason many conservatives oppose gay marriage is that it represents marriage equality. “The phrase ‘marriage equality’ is ordinarily employed to mean that same-sex couples will have the rights different-sexed couples do. But it could also mean that marriage is between equals – not what traditional,” patriarchal marriage has been. “A marriage between two people of the same gender is inherently egalitarian – one partner may happen to have more power in any number of ways, but for the most part it’s a relationship between people who have equal standing and are free to define their roles themselves.”
Solnit devotes a chapter of her book to the ways women have been made to “disappear.” Taking their husbands’ names and wearing veils are the first two examples of this. “Veils go a long way back. They existed in Assyria more than 3,000 years ago, when there were two kinds of women: respectable wives and widows who had to wear veils, and prostitutes and slave girls who were forbidden to do so. The veil was the marker of a woman for one man, a portable architecture of confinement.
In Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ from 1976 to 1983, the military junta ‘disappeared’ dissidents, activists, left-wingers, and Jews, men and women. The first voices against this disappearance, the first who overcame their fear and became visible, were those of mothers of the disappeared. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo began appearing in front of the presidential mansion at the Plaza de Mayo in the capital, Buenos Aires, and, having appeared, they refused to go away. Forbidden to sit, they walked. Though they were attacked, arrested, interrogated, and forced out of this most public of public places, they returned again and again to testify openly to their grief, and to demand that their children and grandchildren be returned. They wore white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their children and the date of their disappearances. Motherhood was an emotional and biological tie that the generals in charge of the country couldn’t portray as leftwing or criminal. It was a cover for a new kind of politics, as it had been for the US group Women Strike for Peace, founded in the shadow of the Cold War in 1961, when dissent was still portrayed as communist. Motherhood and respectability became the armor, the costume, in which these women assaulted in one case the generals and in the other a nuclear weapons program and war itself.
When I was young, women were raped on the campus of a great university and the authorities responded by telling women students not to go out alone after dark. Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy: that men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, because of the violence of one man.
Every woman who appears wrestles with forces that would have her disappear, that would tell her story for her or write her out of the story. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.”
Solnit’s next chapter, on the liberatory thinking, both political and artistic, of Virginia Woolf, has much to say about the uncertain times we’re living in.
“‘The future is dark [obscure], which is the best thing the future can be, I think,’ Woolf wrote in her journal in 1915 as the First World War began to turn into catastrophic slaughter on an unprecedented scale.” In 1938 Woolf discussed war and its roots in Three Guineas. She began the book by answering the question “How in your opinion are we to prevent war?” with the statement, “As a woman I have no country,” a stand much like that of the international communist movement, urging loyalty among workers of all nations in times of nationalist wars.
Solnit includes the thinking of writer, filmmaker, and political activist Susan Sontag in this discussion. Sontag wrote that people who haven’t experienced war can’t understand the reality of it, and may be numbed by reading about it or looking at war photographs. Like Woolf, Solnit says, Sontag called on us “to embrace the darkness, the unknown, the unknowability. She doesn’t imagine the contradictions can be ironed out; she grants us permission to keep looking at the photographs; she grants their subjects the right to have the unknowability of their experience acknowledged. And she acknowledges that even if we can’t completely comprehend, we might care.”
When Solnit visited Sontag, the latter “made the case that we should resist on principle, even though it might be futile. I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you can’t foresee or even imagine, perhaps long after your death. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting.”
Next, Solnit addresses “the massacre of students in Isla Vista, California, by one of their peers.” There have been so many mass shootings in recent years that I had to go to Wikipedia to recall this one. I found this: “On May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara, before taking his own life. The attack began when Rodger stabbed three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to a sorority house and shot three female students outside, killing two. He drove to a nearby deli and shot a male student to death inside. He then began to speed through Isla Vista, shooting and wounding several pedestrians and striking several others with his car. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle and came to a stop. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Before driving to the sorority house, Rodger uploaded a video to YouTube in which he explained that he wanted to punish women for rejecting him and to punish sexually active men for living a more enjoyable life than his.” In an email to friends and family, he also described “his frustration over not being able to find a girlfriend, his hatred of women, his contempt for racial minorities and interracial couples, and his plans for what he described as ‘retribution.’”
Solnit thinks the subsequent discussion of this event on Twitter was significant. Apparently, some men were saying they “weren’t the problem.” Solnit recalls that “an exasperated woman remarked to me, ‘What do they want – a cookie for not hitting, raping, or threatening women?’ Women are afraid of being raped and murdered all the time and sometimes that’s more important to talk about than protecting male comfort levels. Or as another woman tweeted, ‘Sure #NotAllMen are misogynists and rapists. That’s not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen live in fear of the ones that are.’” A bit more from Twitter: “#YesAllWomen because I’ve seen more men angry at the hashtag rather than angry at the things happening to women. #YesAllWomen because if you’re too nice to them you’re ‘leading them on’ & if you’re too rude you risk violence. Either way you’re a bitch.”
Solnit declares: “Language is power. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it. Vernacular phrases – ‘Catch-22,’ ‘monkeywrenching,’ ‘cyberbullying,’ ‘the 99 percent and the 1 percent’ – have helped us to describe and reshape our world. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. One of the compelling new phrases of our time is ‘rape culture.’ The term came into widespread circulation in late 2012 when sexual assaults in New Delhi, India and Steubenville, Ohio, became major news stories. As one definition put it: ‘Rape culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape culture affects every woman. Most women and girls limit their behavior because of the existence of rape. Most women and girls live in fear of rape. Rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape.’
The term ‘sexual entitlement’ was also used in 2012 in reference to sexual assaults by Boston University’s hockey team, though you can find earlier uses of the phrase. I first heard it in 2013 in a BBC report on a study of rape in Asia. The study concluded that in many cases the motive for rape was the idea that a man has the right to have sex with a woman regardless of her desires. In other words, his rights trump hers, or she has none. This sense of being owed sex is everywhere. Many women are told, as was I in my youth, that something we did or said or wore or just the way we looked or the fact that we were female had excited desires we were thereby contractually obliged to satisfy. Male fury at not having emotional and sexual needs met is far too common, as is the idea that you can rape or punish one woman to get even for what other women have done or not done. After the killings in Isla Vista, the term ‘sexual entitlement’ was suddenly everywhere, and blogs and commentary and conversations began to address it with brilliance and fury. On that Friday in Isla Vista, our equilibrium was disrupted, and like an earthquake releasing tension between tectonic plates, the realms of gender shifted a little. They shifted not because of the massacre, but because millions came together in a vast conversational network to share experiences, revisit meanings and definitions, and arrive at new understandings.”
Solnit acknowledges that progress in the fight against misogyny can be uneven, but concludes, “There’s no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973 with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion, or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can’t so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights…Revolutions are made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies…
Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out, or that if there is you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have. We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we’ve come can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a few decades ago. Though it still generates a significant percentage of calls to police and enforcement has been crummy in most places, the ideas that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it’s a private matter aren’t going to return.
Feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people. Rape and death threats are the blunt response; the decorous version is all those articles telling women who we are and what we may and may not aspire to. Casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too. ‘Careerism,’ for example – the pathological need to have paid employment – is an affliction that only affects women, apparently. Then there are all the tabloids patrolling the bodies and private lives of celebrity women and finding constant fault with them. Get back in the box, famous ladies. Conservatives are now largely fighting rearguard actions, however. Thanks to demographics, their regressive conservative push isn’t going to work – the United States isn’t going to be a mostly white country again. Neither are queer people going back in the closet or women about to surrender.
Feminism sought and seeks to change the whole human world; many men are on board with the project, but how it benefits men, and in what ways the status quo damages men as well, could bear far more thought. As could an inquiry into the men perpetrating most of the violence, the threats, and the hatred and the culture that encourages them. Perhaps this inquiry has begun. A nationwide movement organized by mostly female college students, many of them survivors of campus sexual assault, has sprung up, to force change in the way universities deal with such assaults – as has a movement to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military that’s succeeded in forcing real policy changes and prosecutions.
There’s more that we need to be liberated from – like a system that prizes competition, ruthlessness, short-term thinking, and rugged individualism, that serves environmental destruction and limitless consumption – the arrangement we call capitalism. It embodies the worst of machismo while it destroys what’s best on Earth. Men fit into it better, but it doesn’t really serve any of us. Look to movements, such as the Zapatista revolution, which has a broad ideology that includes feminist as well as environmental, economic, indigenous, and other perspectives. This may be the present and future of feminism that isn’t feminism alone. The Zapatistas rose up in 1994 and are still going, as are myriad other projects to reimagine who we are, what we want, and how we might live.