I write a column for Maximum Rocknroll. This is an upcoming column.
It’s not like unjustified fear is anything new in US political rhetoric, but this 2012 electoral cycle has really been a banner year for the kind of ignorant and hateful commentary that is meant to keep large swathes of the public – essentially, those of us who are not rich white cis men – on the defensive, responding to said statements rather than defining the terms of the debate for ourselves. We spend our time and energy locked in circles, swallowing our own tails, feeling defeated before we even begin.
Of course, that is not to say that pushing back against the Todd Akins, Paul Ryans and Jim Greers of the world – the bigots who want to retain their policymaking power at all costs – is not important. But it is only half of the picture. There is organizing to do, there are projects to develop, there are networks between community organizations to nurture, and somewhere in there we need to take care of our own hearts.
I’m not the only one who is feeling completely drained at this point in time; every conversation I have with a colleague or likeminded friend who pays attention to politics seems to go this route: “Do you feel like you just kind of can’t even with the world right now? Yeah, me too.” We turn off our blogs, stop reading the news for a moment, step away from our computers, stop having the same discussions over and over again because they are so draining to have. Not only do we live in a culture in which police (or those adopting police tactics, like George Zimmerman) claim that their murders and beatings and sexual assaults were justified (and many people believe them), not only do we live in a culture where rape victims are afraid to step forward because of the way we fear we will be treated by the system based on past precedent, not only do we live in a culture where unions are vilified for even daring to challenge an employer on something like the provision of health care for their employees, not only do we live in a culture where Black and Latin@ voter suppression is an obvious part of the right’s political strategy – but we spend most of our energy trying to prove those things are even happening even when they’re easily documentable, even to those within our own movements.
The feminist environments I grew up in, for instance, took as a given that mainstream feminism as we knew it had been a movement in which white cis women had been allowed to define the terms of rhetoric and spaces to privilege their own voices and exclude those of women of color and trans women. (There are any number of histories and personal memoirs that speak to these experiences.) We looked at the segregated nature of ‘70s feminism and looked forward to building a movement in which we would not replicate the mistakes of past generations. This is not to say that the feminism of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s did not have many of those same issues, but it was an environment in which those conversations flourished, in which we did not have to prove over and over again to those who were supposed to be our fellows that something documentable (and obviously wrong) was indeed happening. These days, I see those kinds of 101 conversations that are really a step backward happening everywhere all the time, as mainstream feminist websites delete comments that merely question where the voices and viewpoints of those who are not white cis women are.
We live in a political environment where nuance is frowned upon (tl; dr), where the rise of Twitter as a news source has condensed sound bites even further into hashtags. The news cycle is absurdly quick these days – it’s been speeding up since the invention of the newspaper, but these days it can be a matter of minutes. I think sometimes that’s one of the reasons we have the same conversations over and over again so many times – because the amount of information out there is so enormous, and because the life cycle of the headline or the popular blog post is so short, memory has to accommodate for both. Sloganeering becomes survival.
I’m not saying that the sky is falling or trying to say that It Was Better Then – it was just different, and we have new media to contend with - as the music and publishing industries, both mainstream and DIY, struggle with electronic media, so does politics. Since Atwater days in particular, the US right wing has done a really phenomenal job of messaging, of introducing terms into the debate that end up defining the debate, of keeping the left wing on the ropes, attempting to make up the distance. This isn’t a new critique by any means, but I see in this critique the source of my own personal exhaustion – it hurts to be having the same conversations over and over again about rape, about abortion, about police violence, about body autonomy, about economic justice. These are the subjects close to my heart, close to my own survival and the survival of people I love dearly, and when our survival is threatened in rhetoric and policy proposal by those who have the power to make the policies that will have very real impact in our lives, I start sending out SOS signals. Being in a state of constant SOS, constant vigilance, being tensed to fight every day, is beyond exhausting.
Fear motivates me too, in a way. It is a very different fear than the unjustified fear and hatred that motivates so many politicians. It is the constant fear that I live with that I will be attacked in my own home, walking down the street in any neighborhood, just because I exist – that amongst the members of my community there will be someone who will hurt someone else I love and that that community, much as the justice system at large, will not be supportive or understand. That is a fear that is wholly justified. As a white cis woman, my fear of being erased by someone hateful just because I exist is less than others, because there are not as many people who feel threatened by my presence enough to strike out or kill as there are for, say, someone like CeCe McDonald (you should read up on her case if you aren’t familiar). The political environment constantly reminds me that not only my existence and autonomy are constantly being challenged but that the existence and autonomy of people I love dearly is constantly under attack. How do we hope to fight back, when we have such a disadvantage?
We go back to the basics. We organize, we talk, we have continued conversations where we listen to one another seriously and offer true help and solidarity to one another – not the kind of solidarity where you get what you came for and then you’re gone, not the kind of solidarity that tramples some by capitalizing on the struggle of others – we need the kind of solidarity where those of us who have more resources offer without caveat those resources to others fighting against systemic marginalization while still respecting the ability of those others to organize themselves and build their own movement, the kind of solidarity that does not have ego. We start defining the terms of our political debate in-house ourselves, and then bring those terms to the public sphere. We need to figure out how we are going to use new media to our advantage without forgetting that some of us don’t have as much access to technology as others. And we need to give ourselves time to rest, time to breathe, time to be light. We need to study our history carefully as we look to our organizing strategies for the future.