“Business as usual” no longer exists as a concept, and so I need to say this first.
A fascist has won the electoral college, and people whom I know–people whom I love–have voted for him. Hatred has beaten out common decency. Willful ignorance and misinformation has defeated sound mind and reasoning. And everyone else is too psychically injured by Hillary Clinton’s loss to recognize that democracy as we know it has been utterly destroyed. What else could you call it when the FBI and the Russian government interferes in an election? Most countries call it a coup.
So what does it matter–what does it contribute–if I write about archaeology or art or aesthetics or tourism or any of the other topics that I usually research? Do they effect social change? Do they even matter in the very different world we’re already living in, or in the very different world that is to come?
Since the election, I’ve marched and protested all over DC. I’ve gone to candlelight vigils at the White House; I’ve shouted angrily outside of the Old Post Office; and I’ve made it a point of protest to always say “The Old Post Office,” rather than acknowledge its rebranding.
I’ve given to organizations, like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, that are under attack as they fight for our greatest ideals of freedom. All of my thoughts and energy have poured into acts of resistance and in trying to ensure that that resistance is sustainable, not just born of the angry heat of the election. But it never feels like enough.
During the last eight years I’ve considered myself engaged, and only now do I realize how spoiled and complacent and lazy I’ve been. I felt the arc of justice bending through my life, from my earliest closeted years to the moment I kissed my partner in front of the rainbow-lit White House to celebrate marriage equality.
Living in what we now suddenly call “the bubble,” as recently satirized by SNL, I attributed my personal freedoms and safety to the fact that the world had changed in my own lifetime. As William Blake described the early days of the French Revolution, before the reign of Terror, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”
Along with my friends and colleagues of varying ethnicities and nationalities, religions and orientations, we all celebrated our differences. We rejected the “colorblind” rhetoric and embraced multiculturalism, and in our joy we almost forgot that most of the country remains unchanged. As one friend, himself the child of immigrants, perfectly phrased it, we were “sheltered by our diversity.”
At the same time, I watched the acceleration of police brutality from afar and was horrified by the increasing militarization of SWAT Teams facing down citizens. I hopelessly hoped that it was the last throes of aggression before Americans pressured authorities into reforming law enforcement. I tried to speak out, quietly at first, to talk to family or friends who didn’t understand Ferguson or Baltimore or Baton Rouge. I tried to calmly explain why Black Lives Matter. But I felt too self-conscious to write about racism as a white woman who can only ever speak from a position of privilege. To everyone else, it probably sounded like silence.
The day after the election, Paris Review posted “Writers, Start Writing, and Other News,” a call to arms to overcome the “inborn fatalism” awakened by the election and, instead, to create and to “read as often and as violently as you can.” I began by rereading Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, which she wrote in the days and months following 9/11. I first read the book in the early months of the Obama administration, and I’m surprised and saddened by how prescient it remains. In the opening page, Butler writes, “Since the events of September 11, we have seen both the rise of anti-intellectualism and a growing acceptance of censorship within the media… independence of the media has been compromised in some unprecedented ways.” Never has that been more true than today. From there Butler goes on to describe America’s fervency to mourn white Americans but blindness to the deaths of others, the dangers of unilateral action, the violent apartheid practiced by the state of Israel against Palestine, and the unbelievable arrogance of Rudy Giuliani. Like I said, prescient.
Continuing to “read violently,” I picked up Angela Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, which opened my eyes, as never before to the systematic racial oppression of the prison industrial complex, or what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow. I knew that many people I admire–intellectuals and activists–protest the prison system, but when others asked, “but they’re criminals, why do they deserve activism?” I wasn’t sure how to answer.
My ignorance made me wholly complicit, as ignorance almost always does. There is a quagmire that stretches between “white guilt” and “woke,” and I’m compelled to admit my own problematic positioning.
Watching the stock prices of correctional facilities and security firms soar since the election has only made it more obvious–but still, it’s beyond my naive comprehension that so many people could be so greedy as to see incarceration of humans as a chance to make a cheap, dirty buck. Yet Black and Latino people are far more likely to be arrested, tried, and sentenced than are white people who commit the same crimes. And we are told that prisons are full of hardened and violent criminals so that nobody on the outside protests, and our newspapers and new channels don’t even dare mention the detention centers and holding cells where they imprison entire families of immigrants. Give us your tired, your weak, your hungry. We’ve got a cage waiting for them.
So you can understand that working through these ideas has left little room for novels or a to return to writing about archaeology or aesthetics. At the same time, that’s part of what the Paris Review post was getting at–that we have to create, that the act of creation is subversive, that art itself is subversive.
Someone posted on Facebook–and I regret that I can’t attribute the quote–but it was essentially that, right now, in this political moment, being happy is an act of resistance. We can’t abandon art or literature or science because it isn’t explicitly political. They’ve already made a political position of ignoring art and literature and science. Reading is a political act precisely because it is the only antidote to ignorance, the cultural cancer that brought us to this place.
Many of my colleagues in the humanities–if I may still call them my colleagues–have made the strong argument that the humanities are more important than ever before, and that if we need proof, we need only look to neoliberalism’s long-standing strategy to discredit the humanities as economically nonviable. Indeed, the constant attacks by neoliberalism, and its monstrous progeny, neo-nationalism, only prove the importance of creative and intellectual work–whether that work is explicitly political, or whether it simply brings us joy.
I needed to say this, to make my position clear, as oppressors will, and already do attempt to silence us. I will address the gaps in my own knowledge and experience, and I will use whatever privilege I have as a platform to speak out against injustice, but I will also write about aesthetics, about art, about music, not as if nothing has happened, but precisely because something has happened.