Revolve or Resolve
(Part I: November 7, 2016)
You say you want a revolution?/ Well, you know / We all want to change the world. —John Lennon
I’m going to ask a serious question: What do you really mean when you call for revolution?
Revolution most often means guns, violence, bloodshed, potentially the creation of enmities so deep they sometimes cannot be redeemed. Take our Civil War. Compare it to the map of red & blue states, and see what’s suggested by the conflagration, resolution, redemption and reparations camouflaged by the far sexier word “revolution.” Yes, lint collects, periodically we need to clean out our baskets of deplorables, to decide that some factions are irredeemable. But it can go the other way, too, you know? The Spanish Civil War ushered in a 40-year Fascist reign. Revolution is awful because it’s ugly, because people suffer greatly and die, and because the same unfortunate instincts that led to it can prevail even after the victory, when revolutionaries aren’t willing or forward-thinking enough to clean up the mess they’ve made, to carefully craft a replacement society fair to all. Which would be what, exactly? You’ve got a better idea? Let’s hear it. In detail. What are your plans? Importantly, how are you going to take care of people who don’t, can’t, or won’t buy in?
Indulge me, for a moment, to consider the far more reasonable goal of incremental change. Walk together up this hill here, to take a longer and more sensible political view, towards a horizon further than Bernie, beyond the Tea Party and its recent yet-more-warped, fascistical incarnations. From a 150-year perspective, what might incremental change look like? Freeing a nation from its bedeviling crime of slavery. Marching through segregation and violent discrimination towards passage of a Civil Rights bill and a Voting Rights act. Achieving workers’ rights against baronic corruption and exploitation. Destroying a murderous regime of hate in Europe, and bonding nations together peacefully in open exchange. Turning nations back from the brink of nuclear-scale destruction, and challenging totalitarism. Leading a culture away from its corrosive stigmas of gender and sexuality, further towards true equality. Openly and meaningfully confronting gender-based hatred and violence. Achieving marriage equality. Recognition of the human contribution to pollution and climate change, and overexploitation of natural resources. Inching towards a more compassionate society capable of sharing its profound wealth.
In this light, over a scant couple of lifetimes in the scope of human cultural evolution, ‘incremental change’ sounds quite a bit like the ‘radical change’ many demand. Certainly there’s no rest for the weary and much more can — and should — be achieved. Many injustices remain to fatally challenge mutual societal goodwill. Turning points in history are the precise moments to not give up on the long, arduous, often frustrating process of incremental change, because it, too, can work the other way. If all who threatened to leave the country when ‘W’ was re-elected had made good on their words, how many less left-leaning voters would there be to elect a Democrat for president? To elect left-leaning senators, congresspeople, state legislators, judges, governors, mayors, civil servants? Democracy valorizes the individual, but I think that at times, its inflated egos want too much. We chafe against the smallness of our roles, but each of us is needed. One vote is the brick that holds up the other bricks in the building. A coalition is locked arms, not locked-and-loaded guns.
Cindy Loehr’s Don’t Give Up magnets project is non-specific, open and encouraging. The message is a container, a vessel that can carry the meager hope of getting through another day on the most intimate, personal scale, or on the massive scale of conjoined humanity. It refracts and reflects the imagination back to see beyond itself. The message of Dread Scott’s recent mock-political ad video Anti-Campaign Ad (2016) is also non-specific, with some recent images of pollution, endless war, Black Lives Matter, rape, prisons, refugees and immigrants, and economic and social injustices, but for its last lines, "We need a revolution. We need to get rid of the system, not vote for somebody else to be the head of it."1 True that the compressed form of a political ad can't ever get to the heart of an issue, but what should 'the system' be replaced with? If there's a plan other than chaos, let's hear it. Indeed, there are many things to revolt against, to rebel against, reasons to demand change, many injustices to resolve. But rather than throw up our hands and take up arms,2 I say we get to work, and support those willing to work hard behind the scenes and in front of them, at the bottom of the power pyramid and at the top. And if anyone is to give up, let it be those on the side of regression, repression and destruction of progressive, mutually beneficial values. Make way! Increments add up.
1. Dread Scott, Anti-Campaign Ad (2016) was on view in the Porcelain Room of Monique Meloche Gallery, Sept. 29 - Oct. 16, 2016. It can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOOtYdzfkVI.
2. I mostly mean ‘arms’ figuratively, but have mentioned guns because there are always two sides to any revolution. As Bernie made his case across the country, I too heard words I’d always hoped a candidate for president might say. But I thought, what about the 45% of the country who would never accept an avowed socialist as president, even if it’s actually better for them? Occasional resets away form moderation are necessary to reshift balances, but it seems unrealistic to ignore the strong and vocal faction on the polemnically opposite side of ideas. A Bernie presidency would doubtless be a slog like Obama’s, if not far sloggier, and a potential Hillary presidency has already been idiotically threatened by John McCain, who feels empowered by the fractious factions behind him.
Now More Than Ever
(Part II: November 9, 2016)
The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety. —David Remnick (1)
Some images from real life:
Awoke 6 a.m. clinging to some last shred of delusional hope that, somehow, in the morning, results would be different, that the evening’s long nightmare was only that. Then I heard a woman walking by my window, bawling — all I needed to know.
Tessa stood after her performance, and, holding her cello, said to the sparse crowd of dumbstruck but grateful listeners, “This is not a political statement, but thank you for being in a room together to listen to music.” Sarah turned to me and said, “But it’s all political.”
Alex said he can’t face putting beauty in the world, so left the gallery empty for his exhibition. He posted a sign on the door reading, “PRAY FOR US.”
Jennifer posted a quote from David Remnick that had appeared on the New Yorker website that morning:
…Despair is no answer. To combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do. (2)
Last night’s protest rally and march were filled with profound moments of unified purpose, of righteous anger, expressions of fear and anxiety, and a sense that we must do all we can to resist. It was “Don’t Give Up” embodied in the mass of people who reject the acceptance of hate and ignorance towards political goals. My favorite chants:
We want a president, not a fucking racist!
Which my friend Jes turned into
We want a president, not a fucking rapist!
— so we could alternate between these two despicable (deplorable!) qualities of the man.
[Males] Her body, her choice!
[Females] My body, my choice!
Though that one also resonated despair, because we all know what’s coming, a hard push, supported by a large portion of the female electorate, to end fifty years of women’s rights.
But I found I could not agree with some of the chants:
Not my president!
which is also a very popular hashtag of the moment, and
which only carries along his level of vulgarity and demeans civil discourse. Somehow, the always-odd fact that many curse words are derived from beautiful sexual acts became more disturbing in this new atmosphere of depravity. I’ve tried to swear off of battlefield metaphors, to save those for actual battles; I’ve lately tried to reign in loosely-flung market metaphors (value, investment, etc.); (3) and now am determined to find other words to express ironic, bitter disdain for shitheadedness (in this context even shit doesn’t deserve to be so demeaned, because unpleasant as it is to behold, our strange and beautiful bodies make it).
Indulge me: Flip sides for a moment. (Okay, I know – then take a moment to wipe off the shit.) Now as a Trumper, had Hillary been elected, how might you react to angry crowds taking to the streets shouting “Not my president!”? Admit this much: You’d be thinking, Deal with it. We won. Crawl back into your holes of delusion. If the man himself had refused to accept the results of the election, we’d use every legal means to force him back into his cage of unreality to keep him as harmless as possible to our functioning democracy.
We must face that he gamed the system. The system needs to be recognized for its significant flaws, and we must unwork those dysfunctional parts of it that have compromised the greater good. I don’t know that we can learn much from people who refuse to learn much, I don’t know that we can assuage the disenfranchisers’ feelings of disenfranchisement, when they are doing better than they ever have and other people’s rights don’t actually threaten them in any real way. But we can retool the mechanisms, using the same kind of right-wing smarts that got us all here into this deep pit of despair: Use local politics to establish just laws, encode moral and ethical behavior in our local and state politics as best we can, and rebuild brick-by-brick from the ground up.
If it takes tearing shit down, taking to the streets and staying there, actual resistance and actual fighting, I’ll be there with you — though please remember who has the guns, and which side they’re on. I’d rather be working to help those who are about to be demonized, further compromised, left out, kicked out, deprived of rights and humanity, or limited in their range of free expression and pursuits of happiness. All day Wednesday, after hearing from a friend that voter participation was down by 50,000 in Milwaukee compared to last time, an equation kept running through my head. “If I’d volunteered to get people registered and to the polls, how many cold I realistically have helped? 20? 25? 100, tops, if I got up at dawn and worked all day?” That’s not enough, I reassured myself. After all, it’s up to them. But between vote-eligible apathy and voter disenfranchisement (rampant in Wisconsin, upheld by our right-wing Supreme Court), could I have been talking, loudly, to more people? Let’s come in on the low end, 25 votes per me. If there are 25 of me, 25 x 25 = 625 votes. If there were 100 of this fantasy ass-kicking version of me, that’s 2,500 votes. Mobilizing 1,000 volunteers equals 25,000 votes… you get the picture: This friend also told me that Hillary lost Wisconsin by less than 50,000 votes.
Problem is, there were thousands of volunteers working tirelessly to get out the vote. It’s just folks like me who failed the system, because this is the system we have. To those who say abolish the Electoral College? It’s not the problem, it does the voter’s bidding.(4) To those who ‘protest-voted’? If you think a parliamentary demo-cracy would work better here, then work to make that change, but meanwhile you really fucked up. We don’t have a proportional system, and don’t give me any shit about “the lesser of two evils.” Hillary was our choice, and you know goddamned well that she would have done much more for the common good — despite having to govern for that other 45% of the country, too. If “The majority is never right,” as Henrik Ibsen said, where exactly does that get us? (5)
In this painful aftermath, a dear writer friend expressed that she didn’t know if she could go on writing, as a mere writer — that much more substantive action was required. Certainly the latter is the case. (6) But, I pleaded, I have perfectly intelligent young students who truly believe that 9/11 was a conspiracy. In this era of media consolidation and social-media molecu-larization, now more than ever we need writers who can put actual truth to paper, so it will at least be there for those who look for it. And, respectfully, put beauty in that gallery, Alex! We need more beauty in the world now, not less! Remnick’s “That is all there is to do” is an open statement, and its spur can be achieved in many ways, including demanding recognition for the truth and beauty that continues to exist in the world, and that is our duty to make apparent.
1. David Remnick, “An American Tragedy,” The New Yorker, Nov. 9, 2016. Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998. Thank you to Jennifer Kabat for the heads-up & post-election help.
3. At a School of the Art Institute of Chicago conference on the language used to assess art education (“Art Words,” held April 18, 2016), panelist Kristi McGuire answered a question on the use of “market language” thusly:
It is hard for me to think of a situation where language isn’t commodifiable. Maybe this just betrays my prejudice in this conversation. Can language still be revolt? I mean, let us see how long we can go without using a term that is rendered by the market. I want to believe that language can perform some kind of rupture or solidarity, such as breaking down structures of gender and race and having a place where what you communicate take precedence in some way.
4. From Instagram, a little measured argument from Brendan Fowler (@brendanfowlerbrendanfowler):
LINK IN BIO / LINK IN BIO /
I have been trying to figure out how to word this for hours in a way that talks about the origins of the electoral college system, and how it does not serve us and how we can and must change it now, something that Election Reform! is really largely about, but right now I think what’s most important is the very REAL chance that this fucked up system that got him elected could also prevent him from being president… [peace dove emoji]
5. @hejejo’s Instagram post mobilizing against repugnant anti-immigration, anti-refugee legislation asks for public submissions against the Australia bill prior to Mon., Nov. 14, go to I cite this because we should expect reams of similar American legislation in the days and months to come, and will need vigilant counteraction.
6. Henrik Ibsen, An Enemy if the People, Act 4. The quote arrives from the character Dr. Stockmann, and reads, in full:
The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population – the intelligent ones or the fools? I think we can agree it’s the fools, no matter where you go in this world, it’s the fools that form the overwhelming majority.