It is easy to feel a sense of despair at the news these days. The coronavirus seems to once again have defied predictions and infections are on the rise with the new omicron variant. We have ignorant but influential people still discouraging people from taking vaccines that could save their lives. We have a Republican senate, aided by Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema block legislation that would improve the lives of so many people. And we have a US Supreme Court seemingly poised to roll back the right to an abortion and otherwise advance a reactionary right wing agenda.
Rebecca Solnit is one of the most thoughtful writers and analysts and she has come out with an opinion piece that suggests that what we are witnessing is not the rise of a major reactionary movement but the dying gasps of a desperate minority waging a bitter rearguard battle against historical forces that they realize are going to overwhelm them and take away the power they have held for so long.
While their fear and dismay is often regarded as rooted in delusion, rightwingers are correct that the world is metamorphosing into something new and, to them, abhorrent.
In 2018, halfway through the Trump presidency, Michelle Alexander wrote a powerful essay arguing that we are not the resistance. We, she declared, are the mighty river they are trying to dam. I see it flowing, and I see the tributaries that pour into it and swell its power, and I see that once firmly grounded statues and assumptions have become flotsam in its current. Similar shifts are happening far beyond the United States, but it is this turbulent nation of so much creation and destruction I know best and will speak of here.
All those angry white men with the tiki torches chanting, in Charlottesville in 2017, “You will not replace us” as they sought to defend a statue of Gen Robert E Lee were wrong in their values and actions but perhaps not in their assessment.
White people are not being replaced, but in many ways a white supremacist history and society is.
What’s happening goes far beyond public monuments. The statues mark the rejection of old versions of who we are and what we value, but those versions and values matter most as they play out in everyday private and public life. We are only a few decades removed from a civilization in which corporal punishment of children by parents and teachers was an unquestioned norm; in which domestic violence and marital rape were seen as a husband’s prerogative and a wife surrendered financial and other agency; in which many forms of inequality and exclusion had hardly even been questioned, let alone amended; in which few questioned the rightness of a small minority – for white Christian men have always been a minority in the United States – holding almost all the power, politically, socially, economically, culturally; in which segregation and exclusion were pervasive and legal; in which Native Americans had been largely written out of history; in which environmental regulation and protection and awareness barely existed.
You have to remember how different the past was to recognize how much has changed.
Even more profound than this is a shift in worldview from the autonomous individual of hypercapitalism and social darwinism to a recognition of both the natural and social worlds as orchestras of interdependence, of survival as an essentially collaborative and cooperative business. Disciplines from neuropsychology to economics have shifted their sense of who we are, what works, and what matters. Climate change is first of all a crisis, but it’s also a reminder that the world is a collection of interlocking systems. The just-deceased bell hooks talked about a “love ethic” that included “a global vision wherein we see our lives and our fate as intimately connected to those of everyone else on the planet”.
Birth can be violent and dangerous, and sometimes one or the other of the two involved die. There is no guarantee about what is to come, and the shadow of climate chaos hangs over it all. We do not have time to build a better society before we address that crisis, but it is clear that the response to that crisis is building such a society. So much has already changed. The river Alexander described has swept away so much, has carried so many onward.
It has come far; it still has dams to overtop and so much farther to go.
It is a powerful essay and my excerpts do not do it justice. You should read it for yourself.