What If This Is Just the Way Things Are Now
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Past Me was not kind in planning the month of March. Past Me was eager for events, for activity, for opportunity. Past Me had failed to mark the end of Daylight Savings on her planner. Past Me seems to never fucking learn, to the point that I feel the need to start tattooing myself with future maxims, Memento-style, to remind how long things actually take and the actual toll they take on me.
Past Me forgot about Spring Allergies! Past Me thought maybe she, personally, could start making plans that wouldn’t be rearranged by someone getting Covid (Past Me, a fool). Past Me did not anticipate a Russian invasion and daily atrocities and a hunkering darkness around every internet corner. Past Me forgot about the cruel rains of early March, the accumulated resentment of your winter coat, the look of a daffodil shuddering in a 30 degree wind chill. Past Me thought we might have passed some substantive fucking federal legislation. Past Me was hopeful that some of the brittleness of online spaces would soften, that there would be a pause in our seeming perpetual crisis. Present Me is trying to reconcile herself to the idea that this is just the way things are now.
My partner and I go on a long walk with the dogs every Friday afternoon, the sort where you can actually feel some of the accumulated tension of the week fall off you the further you get from home. Last week, as the invasion in Ukraine continued to escalate in ever more horrifying ways, we were talking about that feeling that we don’t leave crisis mode; we just move from one (or more) primary sources of crisis into the next.
In many cases — including the current one — we don’t actually leave the previous crisis behind; it just wanes in urgency, with a promise that it will certainly wax again. It demands a sort of cyclical vigilance — and it’s been the norm for the last two pandemic years, with their ongoing waves of high-alert anxiety, but it’s also characteristic of the ongoing climate catastrophe, of the erosion of voting rights, of the threats to trans kids and the families and health care professionals and educators who affirm them, of outbursts of horrific racist violence, of school shootings, of giant steps back when it comes to women’s bodily autonomy. It happens, then it happens again, then it just keeps happening.
How long do the parents of a trans kid in Idaho wake up every morning to news of another utterly degrading and dangerous bill on the floor of the legislature before they enlist everything and everyone in their orbit to get their family out of the state? How long do we keep changing the narrative we tell the next generation about climate inaction? As Americans, what stories do we keep telling ourselves about what we did and did not do — what was even available for us to do — as a nation in slow but sure decline?
I wonder, though, at how much of this feeling has to do with the fact that white, straight people with American passports are now feeling the same sort of societal precarity that has long been the norm for people without those privileges. Climate catastrophes do not affect everyone equally, not even in close — but they do affect us all. People with means will still get abortions no matter what state they live in, but they will have to grapple with longer travel times to obtain them, and the particular trauma of being unable to obtain a D&E after a miscarriage. And trans kids and people are part of rich families, of working class families, of every type of family! You can’t buy your way out of a law that says that giving your kid gender-affirming care is a punishable crime.
Put differently: white people who have faced little adversity in their lives are beginning to grapple with what it means to suffer without cause, for reasons utterly outside of your control, in a way that feels abjectly unfair, with little or no recourse. All of this reminds me of the chorus of this is not who we are that rang out following the January 6th attack on the Capitol — and the equally strong chorus that responded this is exactly who ‘we’ are — you just haven’t previously been made to pay attention.
There have always been a select group of people who are largely immune to the harshness of human existence. The number of people in that group has expanded and contracted over time, with various technologies and sanitation developments and labor protections and medical innovations and despots and wars and genocides. But for a lot (not all, but many) Americans, 1990s through the Obama presidency seemed, with the great exception of 9/11, like a period of relative tranquility — like the arc of history, as Obama liked to put it, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was indeed bending towards justice.
Even though millions of Arab-Americans and Muslims were targeted, subject to racist attacks, and surveilled, even though the carceral state continued to expand, even though the climate crisis continued to worsen, even though the United States entered one war under false pretenses and another with dithering purpose, even though there was a global recession brought on by craven, capitalist greed….even then, there was this available fantasy of a post-racist, soft-imperialist, bi-partisan, gay-marriage friendly American Dream.
I know many, many people rejected that fantasy wholesale — see: the protests at the WTO, Occupy Wall Street, the protests against the Iraq War, the ongoing work of prison abolitionists, just to start — but I still think there was a feeling, facilitated by a different sort of a news cycle, a different way of accessing the news, and different mode of connectivity that allowed some version of this fantasy to endure. Again: this was fantasy was particularly available, and compelling, and less like a fantasy and more like “just the way things are here,” for people insulated by various privileges.
It was also easier for these people — myself included — to dismiss ongoing revelations as aberrations, as opposed to evidence of a fundamentally compromised norms. Abu Ghraib, the Obama Birther Conspiracy, the vitriol of the Tea Party movement, the total failure to take action against Wall Street after the Great Recession, the Snowden leak re: NSA surveillance, Sandy Hook, Gamer Gate, the passage of Stand Your Ground laws and the murder of Trayvon Martin, the Bundy Occupation of Malheur — all were evidence, in very different yet intersecting ways, that the fantasy was curdled. In truth, in a nation founded on slavery and genocide — that has repeatedly refused meaningful reparations for those sins — it always has been.
Trump’s election simply shook people who had been insulated from that reality. Think back on Election Night 2016. If you cried, did you cry out of fear, or out of shock? Most white middle-class tears were those of shock: at the loss of a perceive national identity, in continual rage that this isn’t who we are. But those tears of fear — they were from people with so much more than an abstract sense of national identity to lose. They were from people who already knew: this is who we are, and things are about to to get a lot worse.
Joe Biden ran, at least in part, on the promise of not having to pay attention to the news every day: of not having to look at your phone and wonder, what did this fucker say now. And yes, Joe Biden does say notably fewer abominable things. But the foundation cannot resettle, voting rights are still eroding, the planet is still dying, congress is still at an impasse, the courts have been stacked to lean away from justice, Roe is still on its way to being overturned, the anti-trans-bills are replicating, the virus is still spreading and we are still not prepared for the next one. Change is not coming; in fact, if anything, it feels like we are losing ground, and will continue to lose more still.
So how do we move forward, amidst all this relentlessness?
Here’s where I take a curious sort of solace in the work of Jamelle Bouie, who’s used his tenure at Slate and, most recently, the New York Times to underline, again and again, just closely our recent national past resembles our distant one. The deep partisan divides, the violence, the armed insurrection, the concerted erosion of Black voting rights, all of it’s there in the post-Civil War Period of Reconstruction — an enduring reminder of just how far we haven’t, in fact, come.
But Bouie also reminds me that these periods of great tumult, of relentlessness, are also charged with great potential. As he told The Discourse newsletter in April of last year,
Lately I've been spending less time with Reconstruction proper, and more with the period of 1880 to 1900, which is this interregnum in the South where there exists a lot of possibilities of different configurations of politics and political contestation that could've taken this society any number of ways. And the thing that I'm trying to impress upon readers over time is that you should not think of these things as having been fixed [in place]. The fact that Jim Crow emerges at the turn of the century wasn't foreordained. Part of my writing here is coming to impress upon people that for as much as there is path dependence, for as much as there are structural constraints, it's also true that individual and collective action and choice matters, and that the things we do have an impact on where we end up.
This period of perceived relentlessness is, in fact, a period of tremendous potential — like the post-Civil War period, and also like the 1960s. Potential for great change, and real justice, but also potential for great regression, and a sustained refusal to reckon with what justice, in all of its forms, will require.
How do we move towards collective action when we’re so busy sheltering ourselves from the psychological storm? How do those of us with the privilege to be merely shocked actually put in the work that helps protect those who are, and have been, afraid? And how do those same people — myself included — reconcile ourselves to the fact that some of that work doesn’t mean returning to whatever fantasy space that preceded this time, but rebuilding and expanding and reimagining the space altogether?
For those of us who are weary: that is their goal. For those of us who are disenchanted with the political system: that, too, is their goal. For those of us who fear the entire game is lost: again, very much the goal. That feeling of undulating, uncontrollable crisis — the goal. It is a tremendously effective strategy, but we have to see it for what it is: an ongoing coordinated effort to pass unpopular legislation on the local, state, and federal level. The aim is to ensure minority rule, to empower a Christian Nationalist agenda, to prevent Black and brown people from voting, to defund the public education system, to remove all forms of gun control, to weaken if not altogether eliminate labor protections, to criminalize abortion, to deny climate change and any legislation intended to counter it, to deny the existence and rights of trans people, to roll back the ACA and the mandate to cover people with pre-existing conditions, to repeal gay marriage and the ability of gay people to adopt, to eliminate and sell off public lands, and to consolidate power in the hands of the rich. That is not hyperbole. If you live in a state where this agenda is unrolling, you know. That is within reach.
Please realize that I’m talking to myself here as much as I’m talking to any of you. I’m so tired, so frustrated with the intransigence of the political system, so paralyzed by the war in Ukraine, so pissed and ashamed every time my mom sends me a text with a new horrifying and regressive bill making its way through my home state. But I am not afraid for myself, and I know so many who are. And it is my moral responsibility to care, even when — especially when — these changes don’t directly affect me.
I am increasingly convinced that the next decade will be one of similar relentlessness, and we will all have to grapple with the wounds and scars in different, defining ways. It’s a terrifying prospect, really: to know just how much tumult and change we will endure. But our future is not fixed. Where are we prepared to guide it?
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