Absurdities of Now, Visions of “Better”

I have written before that I believe you can write your way out of ignorance. That constitutes both a hope and an excuse. Because I keep. on. writing. I am compelled and I respond. It’s 3am, it’s 5am, it’s 10pm, it’s midnight. There’s the screen, the blinking cursor, that damn insistence that even if I don’t know exactly which words I will need, tossing them up on a screen will provide at least a temporary relief.

Of course, the need to write bubbles up as a way to make sense; a way to understand what I’m reading. I want to process how those ideas connect to my experiences and those of others. I’m looking for a handle to grasp the absurdities of now and somehow turn them into useful lessons that justify persisting. Writing becomes a talisman against the corrosion of disbelief; a way of facing reality that is not exclusively punishing.

In fact, those “absurdities of now” — climate change denial as a policy choice, the rise of macho, authoritarian-style leaders in the West, for beginners — reveal, on the one hand, how readily humans resist learning that is complex and multifaceted and on the other hand, how greedy we remain for cheap solutions, steps and fixes. We want to reform/change/dismantle a thing, but will do almost anything to avoid beginning the complicated and necessary work to achieve it (See Hema Khodai on this). The contrast between “Yes we can!” rhetoric and “Democracy dies in darkness” [and we’ll keep you posted the whole way through] reality somehow exemplifies American exceptionalism of the imagination: a real knack for conceiving the American project as so much more equitable, charitable, humane that it ever was.

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My reading journeys send me far beyond my home and workplace. I take several opportunities to learn more about topics that lie quite outside my lived experience. These excursions have less to do with broadening my knowledge base, per se, and much more to do with trying to understand my place in the world; to wonder about my role in making the world better or worse, for whom, and in which contexts. Reading widely has helped me more than many other methods to comprehend that the proposition of role rarely presents as strictly “either/or” and more likely as instances of “both/and.”

I say I believe in living greener and my consumption of plastics continues unabated. I claim that I belong to the #resistance and I can count on one hand the number of letters I have penned to my representatives. While I want to believe that I make the world a better place, the reality is that 1) my contributions are unevenly distributed and 2) depending on context, my behaviors may present more parts problem than solution. Without honesty there is no integrity. I keep reading as a method to help myself know better in order to do better.

Patrick Blanchfield is an author who has influenced my thinking about societal narratives significantly. In several ways, he offers me an avenue to know more in order to think better. While first attracted to his incisive writing on American gun violence, by following him on Twitter and reading a wider sample of his work I have come to appreciate the unique manner in which he connects strands of neoliberal thinking and policy making with notions of racial and ethnic hygiene; toxic masculinity with American exceptionalism; widespread domestic violence with imperialist militarism. He presents each of these societal afflictions as parts of a common puzzle which converge to substantiate what he terms Gunpower, the title of his upcoming book.

What strikes me whenever I read Patrick’s writing is how plainly he names things. In “The Market Cannot Solve A Massacre” he essentially says: this is what neoliberalism is, this is how it operates in governing structures and how it plays out in real life when we talk about how to prevent mass shootings. As one example, he highlights the expectations placed upon children and their teachers participating in active shooter drills:

If you pay attention, you’ll notice how the statements of school security professionals and the scripts for active shooter response trainings inevitably emphasize delaying or containing the shooter, slowing their progress, keeping them in one place… It is hard to imagine a more nutshell image of contemporary American neoliberalism than this: Demanding our citizens, training our children, to throw themselves like human sandbags against a problem that we decline to attempt to solve.

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The clarity stuns me again and again. Further, Patrick never fails to point out the racial and gender dynamics of gunpower. On a podcast episode of Know Your Enemy, hosted by Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell, he compares media responses to the Sandy Hook massacre and the killing of Trayvon Martin, noting in particular how these examples demonstrate the racial inequalities embedded in how we talk about gun violence in the US. He asks:

What type of social order is producing this? …it’s an order attempting to maximize the prerogatives of people to be armed so that they can kill certain people. And it’s willing to absorb even the spillover that that entails in Sandy Hook. (min 29:30–32:00)

Not to be misunderstood, he further asserts

Everyone is disposable in this system.

Patrick talks specifically about the social order of structural inequality across race, gender and class in ways that are tangible and forthright. Perhaps this is a key factor in what draws me to Patrick’s analyses: I feel seen. As a Black woman, as a teacher, as a citizen. I can locate myself and people who look or work like me in his descriptions of American society at large. That is not a given among many other pundits writing about similar topics.

I’ve listened to the Know Your Enemy podcast episode in its entirety two times and stopped frequently to transcribe the exact words. The collection of evidence betraying the priority maintenance of white male prerogatives to enact violence as a means of containing the progress and/or flourishing of racialized groups and of women is staggering. At times we really need to hear someone else name the thing that haunts and tries to shrink us in order to be able to recognize the full extent of its effect. I like to believe that I personally don’t have anything to do with guns. Or with abuse. Or police violence.

Until, of course, the next shooting spree is broadcast or a further innocent life is claimed by police acting as judge, jury and executioner. Then I am shook and can tweet my grief and sadness all over again. The hard part is again being reminded that this is germane to the culture I grew up in. Even if I have never handled a gun, have yet to lose a loved one to gun violence — I am witness to the social reproduction that yields this cyclical pattern. Not only witness to, I participate in this process as a voter and educator. As long as we fail to take the necessary legislative steps and refuse to prioritize meeting human needs over perpetual economic growth, we condemn our children and their children to the constant threat of gunpower trauma. (And yet, when was the last time I lodged my complaint with my elected representatives?)

When I teach my students that I expect them to be respectful of each other and to demonstrate kindness, but I also have to model it for it to have any real effect. Think about how that matches up with the messages children receive with our increasingly routine lockdown drills. Pat has words for this, too:

They [lockdown drills and attendant services] are also an educational enterprise in their own right, a sort of pedagogical initiation into what is normal and to be expected. Very literally, Americans teach their children to understand the intrusion of rampaging killers with assault rifles as a random force of nature analogous to a fire or an earthquake.

I want to teach kids that listening to others can make a positive difference; that seeking ways to include others will improve everyone’s learning; that we can achieve good things if we learn to work well with each other. These are the understandings I want students to internalize; my own “pedagogical initiations,” if you will. Alongside those lessons they will also learn that violence is a form of power and by whom that power is most likely to be wielded. They will learn that violence comes in multiple forms and that not everyone enjoys the same levels of protection.

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In her book, We Want To Do More Than Survive, Dr. Bettina Love talks about mattering as a precondition to being able to thrive in a society. To matter means to be acknowledged and recognized as full citizens with equal rights and opportunities to create, build and sustain a society that will support all of its members in necessary measure. In her introduction she asks, precisely how “we who are dark” (DuBois) can ever believe that we matter under the circumstances both of history and the present:

How do you matter to a country that would rather arm teachers than have courageous conversations with itself about gun control, eliminating guns, and White male rage? How do you matter to a country where the idea of consent seems alien to its conquering culture? How do you matter to a country where the president calls immigrants animals, particularly those from Mexico? (loc. 53)

Like Pat Blanchfield, Bettina Love sees and illuminates the underlying tangles of social stratification which emerge as the cultural fabric of the nation. For me these juxtapositions perform a kind of life-giving service. They confirm that the popular, well marketed narratives of equality and justice that I grew up with are also built upon a labor intensive effort to insure that only certain groups receive full access and that others are kept at arms length from those benefits. It’s a relief to arrive at some truth that corresponds to my observable experiences. It is uniquely freeing to hear authors like Blanchfield and Love articulate not just the story line, but the blueprint it is based on.

Both authors boost my own sense of agency by telling the unvarnished, yet complicated truths of a history and society that produced me. They give me levers for a deeper and more richly networked understanding of our current catastrophes. They offer the kinds of handles I’ve been looking for; by acknowledging a particular social foundation on which many lies are built and pretty stories constructed. To reach the better knowing/doing/thinking I’m aiming for, it helps to realize that not everyone will offer the penetrating lenses that authors like Blanchfield and Love provide. My privilege has been in allowing them to reveal so much of what I previously could not understand and resisting the urge to remain so comfortably sheltered.

Leadership Coach, Educator, Workshop presenter & facilitator, avid reader & writer @ home on the edge of the alps. Publisher of "Identity, Education and Power"

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