Written in the weeks before the 2020 presidential election of the United States.
"All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite wailing of purists...I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent." - W.E.B. Du Bois
"… A little drop of poison in the rain,
A little drop of madness in my heart.
It's nothing but will nothing grow away?
Look nervously at things that come apart…"
- The Tallest Man On Earth
One man’s witness to the last two weeks in America: I am angry. I am angry that this president has made it so hard to tell the truth. I am angry that the spectacle takes up our attention when the problems run far deeper and far more insidious through the apparatus of deceit and the weaponry of fear and greed.
My anger took me downtown last Saturday, a voyeur with a camera. I was hoping to find, like so many of the marchers, something to hate. I couldn’t find it. I found grief.
I walked across Freedom Plaza, flags brushing my face as I nudged shoulders to step through the crowd, felt the warm sweat radiating, heard the laughter and jeering of a sickly solidarity — the crowd, for this one moment, feeling the power of numbers, the power of a shared belief. The power of feeling seen.
It was a grotesque menagerie: Confederate flags and placards exclaiming that “Globalists Go To Hell!” (we might, I don't know). Street hawkers bullish for profit, like their king. Aborted fetuses the size of billboards. I heard a man walking by me rage to his friends, “If we don’t get a Republican into the White House, there will be bloodshed.”
A Proud Boy pushed up on me looking for a fight as I took photos. Breathing loudly in my face, unmasked, he accused me of being Antifa scum (am I?). I told him I’d rather not have the conversation, as I didn’t think it would be productive at that time, and would he respect that boundary? (I guess I am.)
He drew himself up, indignant, and said: “I will not! It’s a free country.”
Ah. So freedom, it seems, is the right to treat whomever you want however you want. Freedom is the right to spit vitriol in a stranger’s face, unprovoked. As hard as it was to hear, it explained a lot. When we say freedom, we are using two different words.
Freedom, for me, is also about boundaries. Freedom is about you beginning where I end, and the point of the thing being that we’re in it together. Freedom is the decision to be for one another, liberty the line between you and me.
My grief was realizing that this, too, was the face of God. That they are part of me, my story, and I’m part of theirs. Without them, without the context of our collective history, I could not be so confident that they are so profoundly mistaken, and that the hate they have been swept up in is hurting them as it hurts me, as it hurts millions of my fellow Americans far worse.
The grief is profound and personal; because I carry with my body the very weapon of this ancient American struggle: whiteness, or the spiritual device of negation. A technology which convinces me, like them, how right I am, how justified I am, how responsible I am for the successes of my story. That is the function of whiteness; it doesn't let us see the whole picture.
The whole picture is excruciating. I cannot capture in words how deeply angry I am at what it represents, and at whose expense; anger at myself, too, for how long it has taken me to see. But nothing, either, has held my profound grief that I don’t even know how to begin to relate to these, my countrymen also.
Now it would appear we share nothing in common, not an iota of our stories seem to overlap; we cannot hold a real conversation because we exist in different worlds. The human capacity to believe our own storytelling is deep-seated and powerful, dangerous. I am included in this.
I’ve heard Brene Brown say that “people are harder to hate up close.” It doesn’t seem true for everyone (like my spittle-spewing friend), but it was for me. Not because I didn’t detest everything about the display, but because of the woman bandaging her blister from marching too long. Because of the little girl helping her grandfather into his motorized chair. Because of the children. The children. It’s very hard to hate all of someone when you see their total human-ness; when for brief seconds, you are exactly the same.
I also know that they are not every Trump supporter, and certainly not every Republican. But they are the bleeding edge of an identity in disarray. At the other end are the principled conservatives ashamed, as they ought, to be associated with such radical anti-reason.
So what do ‘moderate’ Republicans do when they are associated with, nay, represented by these seething, furious, farcical fascists? When Alex Jones and Donald Trump put out the call, these (self-proclaimed) white supremacists and ‘Western Chauvinists’ are who show up. We (all) need to take that deadly serious.
This is the bleeding edge of America itself, where they have dealt with their pain by killing it further — their slogan is quite literally “fuck your feelings.” I can’t imagine a more astonishing rejection of empathy, of shared understanding — premises that are crucial to a healthy society.
They may have fucked their own feelings, but our facts and feelings are inextricable, symbiotic. Remove either one and you get a cancerous imbalance. This basic philosophical flaw underpins dogma, bitterness, and hate everywhere. An immature sense of liberty, where it is not reciprocal but unilateral, is the mark of a worldview that fails to recognize the absolute interdependence of our society (and reality itself) — a worldview so self-absorbed that there is no space left over for empathy or curiosity. Trump is the high priest of this religion.
But even if they’ve rejected the bigger picture, we must not. For one brief moment I want to dive into this hellish echo chamber, to see what sounds are shaping their world:
Imagine that you wake up to an (actual) email from the Donald Trump campaign, post-election, that reads:
“The Left HATES YOU, friend. They want to keep your DOWN and keep you SILENT because they are afraid of YOU and everything you stand for.”
Imagine you go to bed reading this (from townhall.com) on your phone: “We owe the radical left less than nothing. We owe them eternal distrust and contempt.”
Imagine that your entire conception of the political landscape is the battle between a “Party of Life” and a “Party of Death.” Can you imagine the toxic fear and distrust that must colour such a consciousness?
In this case, the “Party of Life” went to Black Lives Matter plaza and vandalized the memorial on the White House fence, tearing down the expressions of grief, joy, resistance, anger, and love that covered Trump’s smallest wall. The “Party of Death” went back and created new art.
You decide who’s about life.
It is always easier to mock than to account for. It is easier to dismiss than to look deep within myself and see the “little drop of poison in my heart.” There is a place for ridicule, for public shame, but it is of small aperture. The truth is, these marchers have made a caricature of their own caricature. There is little left for me to mock.
And yet they are absolutely crucial for us to understand, in part because they are the electoral club that the American oligarchs now wield, and in part because they are our brethren. We must cut off the head, but we must be ready to receive those who will gradually wake up as well.
Compassion doesn’t mean we ‘agree to disagree.’ It doesn’t mean we ‘see both sides.’ We extend compassion, in this case, by standing our ground. Committing ourselves to the belief that the lies they have consumed and now shout hoarsely into the pandemic air are dangerous and stupid and ought to be called so.
The most dangerous thing we can do is to call stupid reasonable. Call it human.
‘Seeing both sides’ is the bare minimum of critical thinking. There is no moral equivalency between these movements — which is different from saying that there are not deeply moral people on both sides. As always, there is an anecdotal case for and against every conceivable claim, so we must zoom out. We must look at the biggest picture we possibly can.
At this point, both parties are basically using the same language. It’s all about truth and lies, about freedom and tyranny. And it’s all propaganda, like Du Bois knew. So don’t listen to what we say anymore. None of us. Look at who we are. Take a bird’s eye view.
If only people of color voted in the United States in 2020, every single state would go blue. The Democratic party is wildly diverse, so much so that we struggle to agree about anything. The Republican party is increasingly monolithic, as it backs itself into a corner and more and more reasonable people peel off. Monocultures kill other forms of life, and will eventually die off themselves — any biologist can tell you this.
But the problem with convincing someone that they are in an authoritarian cult is that they are uninterested in being convinced. If someone is entirely unwilling to suspend their basic assumptions for even a moment, I think it means they have never actually considered the implications of that assumption, or that it is an assumption at all.
Remember: there have always been people who were wrong who were convinced they were right. That’s just history. Oftentimes, they will never know they were wrong. But if there’s a chance, we cannot lose it.
How do you teach someone who hates you? You don’t. You stand for reality, and let reality do the teaching. Nothing wants a fight more than hate. We will give to them — but it is not our final answer. It is never the final answer.
"Hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater. While it lasts, burning in white heat, its effect seems positive and dynamic. But at last it turns to ash, for it guarantees a final isolation from one's fellows...hatred bears deadly and bitter fruit." - Howard Thurman