by Randall Amster
Since the election last November, I’ve been searching for the right words to convey my concerns. It’s not primarily about who won and who lost, although clearly the outcome does have serious implications not only in terms of policies and principles, but also for the cultural messages it sends about acceptable behaviors and ideologies. And it’s not about political parties — assuming that construct can be pluralized anymore, with the power of the corporate purse strings tethered to those equivalently across the aisle.
No, it’s beyond the surface of this particular elephant-and-donkey show. This is different, requiring a language that hasn’t been invented yet to fully unpack the implications. What do I tell my children when they ask if things are going to be okay? What do I say to the young adults for whom this moment feels like a generational betrayal of the social progress they’ve made and where they thought the future was heading? What do I focus on to stay motivated and find the positive amidst the growing sense of doom?
Every time I try to write it down, it comes out either hopelessly maudlin or analytically detached. Yes, this is different, representing an existential threat to our way of life, thus triggering both an emotional response and one of disbelief. And part of the struggle is precisely about the merits of that way of life, resting as it does on ostensible pillars of justice and peace that are scarcely available to the majority of people on this planet — or even the majority of those across town, barely miles or just blocks away.
Without projecting too far afield, it’s fair to say that there’s a good deal of complacency about the lack of said justice and peace and its highly unequal distribution. The general public seems to possess an incredible capacity to normalize around spectacular violence and everyday insufficiencies alike, often drawing upon master narratives such as “equal opportunity” and “checks and balances” to hold the cognitive architecture in place. And for any slippage beyond this, there are plenty of available palliatives.
This is very convenient, and begins moving the needle from mere complacency toward active complicity. But the recent “shock and awe” of rights being eroded, established processes being ignored, invidious -isms being condoned and even encouraged — this is only shocking to those for whom this pattern hasn’t been a regular feature of life for the duration. In this sense, any resistance built upon a return to sacred American ideals and liberties isn’t likely to resonate for those who never enjoyed them in the first place.
Indeed, the level of violence in many communities, as a direct force and a set of structural conditions, is staggering. It’s the violence of both deprivation and despair, of “justice” being done to people rather than for them, of failing schools and filling prisons, of a culture saturated in deadly weapons and toxic substances. It’s the violence of diminished upward mobility, the sense of being forgotten before anyone knew you existed, the feeling of walking around with a target on your back wherever you go.
Many of those aghast at the outcome of the election and the machinations of this administration may be feeling some of these sensations in a direct way for the first time. Suddenly it seems as if the country has been taken over by a hostile force, shredding the rules as they see fit, giving license to their cadre of haters to spew vehemence on nonconforming individuals and communities. The dystopian trappings of blatant lies and draconian policies is indeed terrifying, but mostly if you thought it couldn’t happen here.
For a lot of people, it has always been there. And for a lot of others, that’s been cognitively understood yet conveniently ignored. Now that it’s finding its way into the wider cultural consciousness, what will ensue? Will it be “divide and conquer” as one group tries to claw its way into relative safety and power at the expense of others? The election itself seemed to be partly informed by this way of thinking, convincing working people that the “enemy” was each other rather than the bosses and their ilk.
So now what do we do? I keep starting discussions with this, hoping that an answer comes by the time we get to the end. History helps a bit, but not entirely. Certainly people have contested systems (and still do) of authoritarianism and fascism through creative and effective means. The annals of nonviolence are replete with examples and teachings, from Gene Sharp’s landmark compendium and Erica Chenoweth’s empirical assessments to George Lakey’s activist pedagogy and Kathy Kelly’s inspiring interventions.
The civil rights movement is an archetypal case, although it’s more complex than is often remembered. Obviously Martin Luther King Jr. was a central figure, and so too was Malcolm X, with each representing ideas that were integral to the movement. Martin could appeal to the primacy of cherished American values, while Malcolm would observe that those were never meant to apply to him in the first place, and both were right. This tension between ideals and actions was part of the movement’s motivating energy.
Compellingly, Malcolm was actually evolving in a more pacific manner while Martin was becoming more militant in his rhetoric. The latter never abandoned his stance on the ethics and efficacy of nonviolence, yet his public pronouncements grew more and more pointed with invocations of “the fierce urgency of now” and “why we can’t wait.” By the time he gets to the Beyond Vietnam speech on April 4, 1967, King refers to the US as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” — and is killed exactly one year later.
America has always navigated this reality, domestically and globally. We’ve been at war somewhere almost perpetually since the nation’s founding. The genocidal practices of colonization and “manifest destiny” remain unremediated, as does the legacy of slavery and exploitation. As H. Rap Brown once said, violence is “as American as cherry pie.” The shockwaves being felt by many today over rights being trampled and animosity rearing its head may be reverberations from centuries of lingering divisiveness.
Bringing this all to light certainly isn’t the “silver lining” we’d like to see, yet here it is. People are more cognizant now of the slippery slope represented by the mantra “first they came for….” Expressions of solidarity and outpourings of engagement are increasing as more people recognize the basic fact that their own access to justice is implicated by the denial of it to others. Some of those walls of convenient compartmentalization are beginning to fall, ironically as physical walls are planned to be constructed.
Pervasive protests and strong solidarity are a great start, and help provide an opening response to the question of what to do. Yet they likely won’t be enough in themselves, especially if the sense of acute crisis passes and more people are invited back into their zones of comfort. Recognizing this, King spent his last months planning a Poor People’s March on Washington, hoping to bring millions not only into the streets but into the larger discussion of how rampant inequality was a direct threat to all people.
He never got to do that work, nor would he see the “promised land” before exiting this world. And here we are today, faced with our own “injustice anywhere” moment. I still don’t have the right words, nor an easy answer to the central question, but this much is eminently clear right now: whatever gains have been made to this point in terms of social progress have not been sufficient, nor are they guaranteed. As many have intimated the primary factor in the advancement of justice and peace is our eternal vigilance.
What is to be done? Perhaps the best answer to this urgent question is continually being willing to ask it.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, and is the author of books including Peace Ecology.
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