You who’ve hung out here for a while know that I post politics-related stuff rarely (though here’s a post I wrote last year about immigration). That’s changing a bit now, because we’ve reached a point where I consider silence immoral.
I’ll tag posts for those who aren’t interested in reading those things, or who aren’t interested in hearing them from me.
Counterfeit Monkey is, among other things, about the moral problem of democracy. As I see it, being a citizen of the United States makes me responsible for, and guilty of, its actions. At the same time, control is of course shared, and we don’t all agree, so some of us wind up morally bound into things we would never have chosen. This is what CM‘s late scenes are about, and the reason it doesn’t have a straightforwardly happy ending.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those things again.
To be clear, I don’t think things were okay before last week. Wealth inequality, climate change, the treatment of queer people and especially trans people, the fact that our economy is changing in ways we don’t understand and aren’t prepared for and we pretty much need to go back to the drawing board about how jobs are supposed to function.
And the racism. Ferguson made me realize — culpably late — just how ignorant I’d been about the levels of persistent racism in the United States, and the way that plays out in individual lives. I knew it existed: I didn’t realize how much it was, or how brutal and fatal its effects still were. I haven’t talked here much about that, because I feel it’s not my right or my place, and I would prefer to listen and promote other voices who speak with authority. But in those sleepless weeks I read a lot of Ta-Nehisi Coates, paged through a lot of articles, started reading Twitter feeds from Black activists. I looked, belatedly, at reaction to the Trayvon Martin verdict. I got some first tiny sense of the pain, the patience, the hard endurance of Black American communities.
I’ve never been that keen on simplistic statements like “our country is the land of the free,” considering our history of slavery and the way we have treated the first nations. Americans are capable of great good and great evil, which sets us apart from other humans in precisely no respect. Sometimes the evil lacks the tiniest scrap of even pretend justification. I spent my teen years in a placid suburb where someone beat a donkey to death at the local demonstration farm, presumably because they felt it would be a good time to watch an innocent animal suffer and die.
I voted for Hillary in the full expectation that I would then need to spend the next 4 or 8 years putting resources and voice into addressing the ways in which she wasn’t doing enough, or was heading the wrong way. Vote for the best option you have, and then fight the remaining battles as hard as you can manage.
Whatever else I might say about Obama, good and bad — and there’s a lot — this part is something he taught me back in 2008. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” is a hope-scented, change-flavored way of saying get off your ass. Government, civic culture, and conversations about policy are not things you can just leave to someone else. Citizenship means taking responsibility and taking action, day by day and year by year, for the whole of your life. It is a commitment on par with or above a job; perhaps not quite on the level of parenthood or marriage, but in the same general ballpark. I knew that in theory but I didn’t fully internalize, until Obama, that it meant even if you are frustrated, even if you are bored, even if you feel disgusted and confused. If you don’t know what to do, that just means the first task is to work on figuring out what to do.
That said, I think there are a couple of respects in which the current administration is qualitatively different from any previous administration of my lifetime, and requires a stronger, louder, and more persistent reaction. Many of the points I might make here are also currently being made in plenty of other places, but two are critical for me:
- Indifference to truth. Past administrations and individual politicians have lied to us on numerous occasions. This one, however, overtly denies the relevance of factual reality, without which democratic discourse becomes ineffective.
- Absence of good intent. Even the politicians I admire most have done things I thought were wrong, through compromise, ignorance, bad judgment, or other causes. The current president of the United States, however, does not in my view demonstrate an interest in the wellbeing of anyone but himself. I do not believe that it is his aim to do good, or that appeals to either empathy or ethics will affect him.
So. It is time for a great deal of action. Here are strategies I use. If they are helpful to you, feel free to borrow them. They may not be; I’m very aware not everything applies to everyone. I may also be wrong in my approach and thinking; this is just a snapshot of where I’ve gotten to so far, in what I am certain is an ongoing evolution.
Money. When so much stuff is going down, it’s easy to get kind of confused and overwhelmed: what to back? How much? What are the most appropriate uses of funds?
This is especially challenging right now. There is legal work to resist administrative policy that is likely to do active harm, but we also need to be cultivating support systems and alternative networks, especially if the government is removing some of the existing safety net system.
I try to follow the following rules:
- Start by identifying top-priority concerns, and find the organizations most likely to be effective in those areas. I use Charity Navigator and GiveWell to help identify particular groups are likely making the best use of contributed money, both in spending it efficiently and in directing it towards interventions proven to work. Other resources may be useful depending on what your goals are. (GiveWell doesn’t analyze everything I’m interested in.)
- Where possible, prefer large gifts to a few organizations rather than small gifts to many organizations, because every donor also brings administrative costs, and I don’t want my one-time $20 gift to a charity to provoke $19.95 worth of follow-up mailings. (For my own sake, admittedly, but also for theirs!) For those large gifts, plan ahead and pick things that feel like they will be most effective.
- Consider both long and short-term aims. Most of the needs I’m concerned about are things that need to be addressed via long-term political and infrastructure change, but immediate relief is also needed. So, for instance, I look at political action to change educational strategy and funding in the US, but also buy classroom supplies via DonorsChoose. GiveDirectly’s Basic Income study is an interesting case of doing both at the same time, because it provides an immediate income to the extreme poor but also collects a lot of data about the feasibility of basic income as a long-term strategy — something that we will need to understand as our economy reshapes itself.
- Try to avoid overlapping when organizations are doing related work. So for instance even though CAIR was doing work I supported yesterday, I’m already committed to the ACLU as the organization I believe is best equipped to mount significant legal challenges to unconstitutional actions by this administration. I tweeted about CAIR’s lawsuits but continued to support the ACLU financially. Someone else might make the opposite allocation, which is good! We should spread our support around. But it’s more efficient for you to give to one and me to the other than for each of us to give to both.
- Keep some funds back for tactical or personal giving in response to immediate need. This kind of giving is likely to be less efficient (cause more overhead for the recipient organization, be less carefully planned) than other kinds, so for things like disaster response, I think it’s good to pick a reputable global relief organization and support it consistently. However, sometimes there are occasions where a specific individual or small group has needs that could be directly resolved with timely help, or where political events move fast. You’re not bloating anyone’s organizational costs by contributing to an isolated GoFundMe, for instance, and the legal defense of the Standing Rock Sioux is the sort of thing one might not anticipate needing to support in advance.
- Do consider the psychological effects. I want what I do to have the greatest effect it can (an efficiency consideration), but I’m also aware of the non-monetary effects of a choice. Ignoring someone right in front of you who is in need can hurt them in ways that go beyond pure financial concern. If I cannot give, I try at the very least to acknowledge the request, to look homeless people in the eye and admit that I see them. If I’ve made a prudential decision that it is usually more effective to give to a shelter/food bank than to individuals, that is still a choice made at their personal, immediate expense, and I owe it to them to face up to that fact in that moment.
- Earn to give. Put aside hobby or rest time, and do some extra work in order have more to give. NB: I am well aware this option is not available to everyone, and that it’s not appropriate in all cases. It is what I do currently.
Volunteering. I don’t do a huge amount of this, because I don’t personally have the volunteering resources most needed in my neighborhood, namely a car and the spare time to help elderly people shop and get around.
So my best practical calculation suggests that my time converted into money is more valuable to various institutions than the direct donation of time by itself. And I’m keen to avoid being someone who goes on philanthropy tourism that feels good but doesn’t really help the people at the receiving end, or who insists on donating canned food to a food bank when really a lump of cash would give them much more leverage. But this again works differently for different people.
Another purpose of direct volunteering is contact with the people or groups who have needs, and so I try to compensate for that by looking for that information in other ways. Some of the channels for giving money that I use do provide some access to the stories of the people being helped. For instance, GiveDirectly recently launched GDLive, containing messages from the recipients of GiveDirectly funds. A bit of investigation on Twitter can also turn up feeds from lots of activists associated with different groups.
Boycotts, Divestments, etc. There’s a time and attention cost to boycotts, even if not a financial cost, and it’s sensible to focus on what’s likely to work. (The Guardian has an old article on what’s likely to be effective here.) My basic rule of thumb is to focus on areas where an action is likely to affect public opinion and/or represent a long-term commitment of a large amount of money.
I do pay attention to whether my money is with banks that are going to support fossil fuel-related industries. I am concerned about the climate effects of burning fossil fuels; I want to decrease market confidence in fossil fuels as a way of the future, and incentivize investments in alternative energy sources; I believe the desire to keep money in fossil fuels is behind additional political problems in the US, including some of Russia’s recent intervention in our affairs. My US accounts are therefore all with a credit union that does not have such investments.
Contacting Representatives. Like a lot of people, I find this a bit stressful, but it’s very important to be actively engaged with our representatives right now.
I have been calling with requests, and tweeting or emailing with thanks. My thinking here is that it’s appropriate for thanks to consume less of the staffers’ time than requests do, but I hope that they’ll be good for morale, and signal that actions taken were noted and remembered. At the very least, it’s good for my morale sending them.
Managing the Back of Throat Vomit Feeling. The day of the Women’s March, I posted Artemisia Gentileschi’s portrait of Judith and her maid slaying Holofernes. This is an ancient story, painted by a 17th century Italian woman who cast herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes. The art is violent, but is not violence. It is a response that acknowledges the force of women’s rage and gives it permanence.
I posted it because that day opened the door on something I normally box away. Namely: how I feel about the fact that our country elected a self-admitted habitual sexual assaulter to the presidency; a man who considers sexual availability of women to be his personal due, and who also belittles and degrades any woman who doesn’t meet his standards of attractiveness. This is the person our country decided was fit to be its leader and its role model.
Here is a weird thing: I actually frequently forget about this. I mean, literally. Often, and sometimes for days at a time, it leaves my head that this is an issue. I think a lot about the other reasons to resist this administration, but this specific reason is too debilitating for me to contemplate it directly all the time.
When I do think about it, I have to think about the shame and rage I’ve felt when men have reduced my value to object status. I have to think about hearing women I love tell me about their rapes. I have to think about judges who heard their stories and denied them justice or even the protection of a restraining order. I have to think about being called in the morning by someone I cared about, with the opening line being “I think someone drugged me last night.” I have to think about that, about all of that, the shame and violence and helplessness and lack of institutional support. Then I can’t decide whether to scream or cry or throw up.
So I remember that there are other people who have worse memories of this kind, and that for people of color the president embodies yet other but also traumatic and dehumanizing offenses. Also I remember Artemisia, and this message that she left for other women centuries ago, that the rage and sorrow are feelings we do not suffer alone.
Solidarity. One of the things that’s rough is being over here in the UK, rather than on the ground in Seattle, where I could be going to local protests. And I know some people are skeptical of what such protests accomplish, but I think they do matter: both for giving courage to those who want to resist, and for making a space for low-risk as well as high-risk resistance.
From Dictatorship to Democracy speaks to the importance of this. If we reach a point — and we may already be at that point — where it is necessary for some people to defy illegal commands or to incur significant risks from protest, then the solidarity of other citizens lends some protection.
Art, Reclamation of Symbols.
Most of my adult life I’ve been straight-up uncomfortable with images of the Statue of Liberty. Saying “this is who we are” felt like a naive, self-serving falsehood. I’ve tended to see private use of the American flag as a marker of nationalism, too often associated with support for military adventures I opposed.
But I find myself wanting to reclaim these symbols in a way that points to the country I want us to be. There are loads of satirical cartoons that show lady Liberty being groped, goosed, and otherwise profaned by the president, but these leave me feeling bruised and sad. My favorite picture of her from recent days is a cartoon in which she holds a Syrian child in her arms, and her expression is defiant. It is the child who holds the torch.
Yet another purpose in art is to envision what the better future might look like: the Utopia Jam is an example of effort in this direction.
Triage; Variety. I see stuff on social media right now of the form “you must resist! 24/7!!! If you are not resisting, you are wasting your time!!!”
I get where that message is coming from. I also know where it can lead. When you feel a strong moral imperative towards whatever you’re working on, it’s easy to burn your resources down to where you can’t do anything but exhausted sobbing in the bath. Variety helps. I don’t expect to do the same kind of work all the time; shifting gears from one to another is refreshing.
Also: sometimes I run out of things I can do about an immediate problem (donate to a cause, call a rep, etc.; now what?) and afterward have a bunch of leftover rage-grief-fear slurry in my system that makes it harder for me to go back to regularly scheduled work. I have various emotional management techniques for this, but sometimes I feel like I need to go on focusing on this topic for a little while longer.
That can be a good time to turn towards the longer term. What can we do now, and then what can we set in place for later? Having seen what the present is, what can we do — or make, or read — to prepare for the future?
My father gave me a set of August Wilson’s Century Cycle. I’ve been reading it in times of distress about racism in the US when I’ve run out of other actions. In the past I’ve used other literature and memoirs for this purpose. To do this changes no one and nothing but me, but that is also part of the work.
Recognition of Love. Of late I have seen people with serious social anxiety calling senators, introverts shouting in the streets, people with barely any money or time to spare giving those resources to their neighbors or in the cause of their country. Perhaps these are not heroic on the scale that leads to statues and parades, but we still need to see these things for the acts of love and courage they are. If we call upon ourselves to see and recognize the hate and prejudice at work at the moment, along with the fact that this mess didn’t start last week — and we should recognize those things — then we also must acknowledge the other truth as well. Holding both facts in mind at the same time is very difficult and very important.