From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Disturbing Our National Slumber
By Rich Blint
At some core and irreducible level, there remains so much and so very little to say concerning the current social and political convulsions in the U.S. The heightened handwringing, generalized anxiety, and outrage only make sense, to this immigrant-citizen, in the context of an indulgent national innocence. It has always been right before us, the ugliness of our national life, and the recent shock of recognition by what we have taken to imagining as the dominant culture can only be accepted as a stark but welcome disturbance of a particular species of collective inertia.
For those of us on intimate terms with the habits of American power, who have long been kettled at the edges of society, tarrying with illusions of democratic inclusion is dangerous business. As the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde suggested to James Baldwin in their 1984 conversation for Essence, the message that the mythology of the American dream had nothing to do with her came through with alarming clarity:
Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it. I was Black. I was female. And I was out — out — by any construct wherever the power lay. So if I had to claw myself insane, if I lived I was going to have to do it alone. Nobody was dreaming about me. Nobody was even studying me except as something to be wiped out.
Lorde’s refusal to be seduced by the promise and fiction of American egalitarianism is instructive for those who find themselves newly shocked by the behavior of the powerful. Her unsentimental acknowledgment of the forces organized against her and her variegated kin grows out of a life imperiled by white supremacy and its diffuse agents, and an understanding that silence held no refuge — but that honest literary confrontation of our shared history might bear witness.
It is true that we have entered what feels like foreign territory. The political actors at the helm seem an unusual breed. The familiar representational polish and targeted scripts, replete with platitudes and bromides, have largely been abandoned in favor of crude ideological efficiency and bluster, and an all-out assault has been launched by the right-wing establishment on everything from school lunches and voting districts to immigrant families and climate change — all while shielding the NRA in the wake of senseless carnage and white nationalists in the aftermath of the parading of a hate so infantile and rudderless it registers as clinical.
What is muddled is how we have chosen to characterize and respond to this period in our history. The earnest and protracted pearl-clutching among many on what passes for the left betrays an unwitting alignment with the present criminal authority. Along with that small, ever-shifting cadre of burnished Republicans of yesteryear like George Will, flabbergasted that the party has ceded majority ground to brazen, unlettered neophytes, liberals object to the obscene practices of contemporary governance (threatening our present and laying waste to our moral and material futures) in a manner that strikes one as the shrill, ahistorical calculation of those committed to the status quo and the thin, symbolic choreographies of American enfranchisement.
History did not begin on that decisive night in November 2016. One might be forgiven for surmising otherwise, given the volume of excitable ink and air devoted to the then-candidate and his associates during the campaign, and ratcheted up to increasingly troubling proportions thereafter. The nearly ceaseless coverage of the Mueller investigation, the Stormy Daniels affair, the endless leaks, firings, and not-quite-palace intrigue, illuminates a nation committed to spectacle and terrified of looking at itself — paralyzed before the prospect of any serious confrontation with the necessity of societal transformation and overhaul. It is almost as if we had never heard of men like Eugene “Bull” Connor, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, or Joe McCarthy, or even of something called the Southern Strategy. As if we were somehow freshly unacquainted with the deeply compromised machinations and ambitions of the post-civil rights political establishment that gave us Willie Horton, the welfare queen, black mayors, and a new fondness for Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons — ensnaring and indicting everyone from Chuck Schumer, Russell Simmons, the Obamas, the Clintons, and Donna Brazile to Kanye West, Nancy Pelosi, and the infamous Roy Cohn.
There is a tradition of broad, radical, cultural, and intellectual struggle in the nation that provides a bulwark against political amnesia, against the “new” traffic in difference that is endemic to the culture of capitalist celebrity, that makes it impossible to countenance the vulgar recuperation of a figure like, for example, Ronald Reagan. Despite our genuine and reasonable horror at the direction of the country, we must tell the truth about a man who stood slack-handed and clenched-fisted while AIDS and crack cocaine devastated communities; who, like the current president, had no love for Haitians and thought nothing of orchestrating violent regime change throughout the Americas and beyond.
In a world of permanent and always incipient war, we must ask what the fundamental differences are among recent administrations’ foreign policies, especially as Palestinians are being killed and injured in Gaza. As black and brown people negotiate the life-and-death realities of a newly emboldened nationalism, the neoliberal lie, too long indulged, of post-racialism and that battered word progress, is exacting a price no one is willing to acknowledge, much less reconcile. The crisis of the moment is a product of actions that have historical resonances with the title of this series. In the face of encroaching terror destined for populations marked to be “wiped out,” as Lorde reminds us, what is the required moral action? Do we long for a time when the autocrat wasn’t pounding so close to our door and the illusion of safety was still in reach? Or will we choose to act by unflinchingly interrogating how we got here — now all vulnerable?
We should be clear that the decades-long catastrophe in the Middle East and the perpetual “question” of race in the U.S. have much in common. Both remain “problems” because change is difficult, power intractable, dominant discourses formidable. The opportunity to confront the seams, fissures, and fault lines of a culture is one of the definitions of crisis. And although we tend to shrink from responsibility when confronted with disaster, looming or acutely present, we would do well to adopt the elemental grace Lorde expresses elsewhere in her exchange with Baldwin and declare that as a consequence of living we greet the contradictions of our enduring if abstract differences with respect — “like looking at death: hard but possible.”
Take action today:
Given the increasingly pernicious attacks on our democracy in seemingly all sectors of society, I urge readers to support progressive organizations such as the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Sanctuary Movement, and the burgeoning Poor People’s Campaign. Let’s build a movement, people!
Rich Blint is currently a Fellow-in-Residence at the Center for Experimental Humanities at New York University, and is at work on completing two books including A Radical Interiority: James Baldwin and the Personified Self in Modern American Culture. Starting in July, he will take up the position of Assistant Professor of Literature in the Department of Literary Studies at the New School.