† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
The Age of Enmity?
By Kay Whitlock
Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.”
Conversations are efforts toward good relations. They are an elementary form of reciprocity. They are the exercise of our love for each other. They are the enemies of our loneliness our doubt, our anxiety, our tendencies to abdicate. To continue to be in good conversation over our enormous and terrifying problems is to be calling out to each other in the night. If we attend with imagination and devotion to our conversations, we will find what we need; and someone among us will act–it does not matter whom–and we will survive.
author, essayist, and fiction writer whose beautiful work is notable for its concerns about nature and environment,and its expansive, rich notions of interdependence.
A Time of Political Bedlam
This is a rant.
Perhaps like me, you have been taking stock of the current (insane and bitterly polarized) political culture/atmosphere in the United States today, slamming your head against the wall, internalizing way too much rage and anxiety, and wondering, as one infamous politician once famously asked, WHAT IS TO BE DONE? And it’s still a good question, even if that particular politician had some lousy and brutal answers to it.
The worst answer to the question, of course, is to just take the cheap and easy way out by saying what everybody else (especially the President of the United States) should do to set the situation right; to self-righteously denounce the idiocy and corruption and shortsightedness of everyone else by asserting how right you/we are. Functionally speaking, this is the political equivalent of a tantrum-throwing child who is screaming, “Listen to me, you jerks! I know everything! Do everything my way! I want what I want, and I want it now!” This is not an approach capable of winning both hearts and minds, or building even the flimsiest of bridges across differences. It’s bad enough when the Right does this, but it’s truly unbearable when some segments of the Left or even the Middle (mushy and non-mushy) also respond in this way. In fact, this kind of response, no matter who it comes from, is actually a symptom of the problem, not a solution to it.
It’s much harder to imagine something especially useful that we, ourselves – all of us – might do to help turn the political and economic tide in this country. And by “turn the tide,” I don’t just mean “win the 2012 elections,” although that’s an important part of it. I mean change the damn atmosphere in which we even think about better ways forward, coupling vision with practical ideas for implementation. It’s impossible to shift everyone over to a more genuinely compassionate, caring political point of view, together with the willingness to start working for change, but it’s not impossible to change the atmosphere. And by changing the atmosphere, we make it more possible to have the kinds of real conversations we ought to be having in this country. Conversations about justice and safety and economic well-being. Conversations rooted in an ethic of compassion and caring for one another. From those conversations, worthwhile initiatives for change can gain more support and new organizing can emerge.
So what does this have to do with Criminal Injustice and the fight to dismantle the prison industrial complex?
Everything. Because the prison industrial complex serves as a perfect metaphor for the bitter racial and economic divisions in our society right now and, for the vision of the United States held by the leaders and architects of the Right’s political strategies and supported by too many politicians of all stripes.
And that didn’t come about just by chance. The Prison and Poverty Society is being built by design, and it’s been in the making for a long time.
The Winner Names the Age
The novelist, essayist and civil rights activist Lillian Smith made that remark many years ago: “The Winner Names the Age.” Speaking at the Atlanta University commencement ceremony in 1957, Smith said:
“What I want us to look at together, now, is a kind of rough, crude, blueprint of this age of ours: of the common ordeals–full of danger and opportunities which we, regardless of private view or personal interests, must face together.
It is an age that has no name. Nor will it soon have one. It has often been called “the Age of Anxiety,”
but it will not, I think, be known in history as that. For the winners would not call it so: and the winners do the naming.
Sometimes we forget this. We forget that always an age is named for its triumphs, always for the big ideas that add stature to the human being. A brief glance at any great age, but lets make it the eighteenth century, will remind us how true this is. We call that century the Age of Reason, of Enlightenment, of the Rights of Man. And that is the way we think, today, of those troubled, terrible times…
And yet, actually, the Age of Enlightenment was an age when most Western men could not read or write. The Age of the Rights of Man was a time when a new slavery was sending deep roots into American soil, and a new colonialism was beginning to lay its greedy paws on Asia and Africa…”
Noting the blatant hypocrisies and contradictions of the time, and the failure to live fully into grand, emergent ideas of human possibility and expansion of rights, Smith nonetheless points to the importance of the “germinal ideas it brought to life, the vision of [human] possibilities which is communicated to the future in impassioned words and symbolic acts.” These are timeless, she says, and they reverberate far into the future, where others pick them up and carry them further.
In a sense, I believe, the boldest and most emancipatory ideas, even imperfectly realized, become lifelines for current and future generations. We need not drown in the waves of despair or apathy because someone long ago made sure the lifelines were there. They give us a vision beyond base survival, something to move toward, to build upon, one practical step at a time.
Our task is not to perfect those grand ideas, because perfection is unattainable, but to do what we can to expand on them and translate them, in practical terms, into the life of the larger society. The choice is always to go forward to fulfill and expand on those ideas, or to retreat to the certainty of injustice, which provides comfort for a few, stability for many (even if it is a compromised stability), and great suffering for many. That is a sure prescription for trouble, and it deploys many covert and overt forms of violence in its myriad forms: physical, economic, social, and spiritual.
An age, Smith says, “is remembered not for its enemies and errors, but for those qualities it dramatized which enlarged horizons…”
Our job, she says, is to pick the winner who will name our age.
Sounds almost impossible, doesn’t it, especially in the post-Citizens United period, when increasing tidal waves of money from the Right are being used to try to silence our voices and promote simultaneous doses of vitriol and sanctimoniousness.
Think about what’s at stake. If we do not decide, each in our own ways, to work not just for particular issues or candidates, but for a sea change in the larger civic atmosphere, the broader age we are in – the 20th and first half of the 21st centuries, for example – will ultimately be named by, which is to say will be understood by future generation to exemplify the ideals of Grover Norquist, the Koch Brothers, The Tea Party and Bain Capital. Building on the work of Barry Goldwater, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the Bush presidencies, this would be an Age that lifts up and reifies these ideals:
- White supremacy & xenophobia institutionalized in new forms
- The dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and related local/state measures intended to increase voter participation
- The wholesale gutting of other Civil Rights gains
- The wholesale gutting of remaining (decimated) economic safety nets
- Rejection of any public commitment to eradication of poverty
- Working toward the extinction of public commitment to social programs and human needs
- Increased militarization
- Privatization of all public resources and services – including health care, education, and all national resources/lands/parks
- Mass incarceration
- Massive upward redistribution of national wealth and income – with amplified racial aspects to it
- Armed vigilante action at the U.S.-Mexico border and in communities
- Christian theocracy reflecting only one narrow set of religious views
The gains (however incomplete and imperfect) we have made in this broader age – the New Deal, labor rights and union recognition, Civil Rights, voting rights, public commitment to healthcare – are being undone, one piece at a time, by the wrecking crew of the Right, sometimes with a little help from people who should know better but are running scared. In such an atmosphere, Big Ideas, like transformational/healing justice, universal health care, universal human rights, and economic justice are unlikely to ever take deep hold throughout society. So if we don’t start working with a little more strategic imagination, freshness, and boldness the Bully Boys may end up naming the age.
Slouching Toward The Age of Enmity
Should the Norquist/Koch/Tea Party/Bain Capital vision prevail over time, I suggest the appropriate name for the age would be The Age of Enmity.
To put my suggestion in some sort of perspective, I’ll make a brief digression to the years – roughly – encompassing World War I, World War II, into the 1950s and even beyond.
In the mid-20th century – in the aftermath of two devastating world wars, the poet W.H. Auden published a long, book-length poem called “The Age of Anxiety” and while the Pulitzer Prize-winning poem itself, beginning as a conversation among three men and one woman in a New York City barroom, was not widely read, and is in fact a very intense read, the phrase instantly took hold. It seemed a perfect way to characterize the consciousness of the times: enormous loss related to wars, sudden technological changes, and other stresses and uncertainties of modern life. The influence of the phrase “Age of Anxiety” continues today. In a NY Times op-ed commentary, author Daniel Smith (critically) noted,
“Since 1990, it has appeared in the title or subtitle of at least two dozen books on subjects ranging from science to politics to parenting to sex (‘Mindblowing Sex in the Real World: Hot Tips for Doing It in the Age of Anxiety’). As a sticker on the bumper of the Western world, ‘the age of anxiety’ has been ubiquitous for more than six decades now.”
But I want to suggest that we should regard all of this anxiety – which now also includes anxiety about shifting racial demographics, gender roles, ideas about sexuality, and impacts of massive job losses and home/farm foreclosures – as the massive shifting of tectonic plates, within individuals, groups, and society as a whole. Every age faces its own version stresses associated with great loss, fear, anxiety, and change. It how we choose to face these losses and fears and anxieties and what we propose to do about them that gives rise to the hopes and dreams – the Big Ideas – for which this age ultimately will be identified.
As it now stands, even though polls show that most people do support many forms of equality and the provision of basic economic supports – in theory, at least – the Right is largely controlling the tenor and content of what passes for political discourse in the United States. The atmosphere is saturated with fear, contempt, and an insatiable need for enemies. Any genuine commitment to “the common good” is being fractured by draconian cuts in social spending and the politics of polarization. This new, undeclared, Civil War, pits neighbor against neighbor, and it calls out the worst in us, the most contemptuous, the desire to triumph politically at any human, economic, environmental, and spiritual cost.
For over 40 years – at least since the failed Goldwater campaign for the presidency – the Right has developed and refined the politics of fear, resentment, anxiety, and rage to a political art. (I’ve written about this previously, for A New Queer Agenda, an anthology created and published by Queers for Economic Justice and the Barnard Center for Research on Women).
- White supremacy and xenophobia institutionalized in “colorblind” form.
- “Smaller” government, which is to say, government that focuses only on and pours endless money into national defense and security, while decimating spending for social and human needs.
- Perpetual war as a basic organizing principle of the nation-state: war on drugs, war on crime, war on terrorism, culture wars. Those are the wars the virtuous “we” wage. But “we” also must perpetually defend ourselves against wars directed against the virtuous “us.” These include the war against Christmas, the war against (some) Christians, and the war said to be waged by President Obama against the American Dream – and even America itself.
- Perpetual justification of violence against anyone we name as enemy. Do not care about the humanity and human rights of those who are our enemies. To do so is a sign of weakness.
- Safety and security are only achievable through increased militarization, policing, and punishment – both formally and informally. War requires perpetual vigilance and toughness against our enemies.
- Fences. Cages. Guns. These are the elements that most truly characterize a safe and secure society.
- Fear, rage, anxiety, and resentment as the political motivators for creating safe communities.
- Expanding focus on identifying and controlling “criminals” within national borders. Criminalization processes ensure the presumption that most “criminals” are people of color (including those who are U.S. born, immigrants, and Indigenous), poor people, people with mental illness, and people who are LGBT or gender nonconforming – especially if they are people of color and poor/homeless.
- Criminals are expendable.
- Make expendability profitable, by creating mass incarceration as a better solution than addressing the root causes of poverty and injustice. As mass incarceration becomes unsustainable at the same rates of increase over time, we simply shift some of the profit centers to post-incarceration/post-conviction centers and services serving growing populations of people who are released or placed on probation.
- Private profit is King. Domestic and foreign expenditures should be steered toward the production of private profit.
- The free market, uninhibited by any regulation, is The Deity. Massive job and investment and property losses by small landholders are part of the natural and desirable workings of the free market. So is the increased poverty that accrues from slashing longstanding social programs, including food stamps, Medicaid – and, in the future, Social Security and Medicare.
- Corporations are exempt from any meaningful criminal liability, Even when they knowingly cause massive economic and environmental harm to individuals and entire communities.
The Power of Story
That’s all fairly predictable, right? But look at the story and images embedded within these Big Ideas and the practices that help to activate them in practical ways. This is a story of how we are in a constant state of siege against demonized (primarily racialized) enemies, terrorists, criminals, thugs, and idlers who want to steal what is rightfully “ours.”
It is a wrecking ball story that serves to destroy any broad societal commitments to civility, notions of the common good that include the poorest of us, and caring community, in which we come together across differences to create a more humane and just society for all.
Story, as I have suggested elsewhere, story
“embodies and conveys layers of meaning – spiritual as well as political; emotional as well as intellectual – in ways cold facts and figures, by themselves, cannot. And when [I] talk about the power of Story, [I] mean the narrative arc that embodies – to varying degrees – collective hopes, dreams, possibilities, terrors, resentments, and rage. The power to stir unconscious associations by evoking archetypal images and messages. (For a useful discussion of criminalizing archetypes, including their racialization, see Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States.) http://www.beacon.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=2246 The invitation Story extends to discover within ourselves compassion, generosity, strength, courage, and possibility or cynicism, fear, and loathing. We mean the depictions of what’s at stake, for whom, and the blatant as well as more coded signifiers, of the worthiness – or expendability – of various lives and communities.”
The most grimly fascinating thing about the Right’s Big Ideas, the policies and practices that activate them, and the stories, symbols, and archetypal energies that constellate them is that even progressives and the Left can be influenced by them in ways that go unremarked and unexamined. In so saying, I have no intention of making bogus charges and promoting false equivalencies between Right and Left in terms of the deployment of demonizing and violent rhetoric.
Rather, I want to note that our whole society has been so inundated with the relentless clang and clamor of the Right’s insistence on Siege Politics and Enemy Formation that we sometimes fail to see how we, ourselves, can be influenced, even corrupted, by it. Progressives and leftists also sometimes come to believe that the only response to violence and injustice is more policing and punishment. We thirst for vengeance and retribution. Many of us tend to respond to injustice with calls for retribution as the only satisfactory response – and we refuse to engage in the much harder work of transforming cultures of violence that exist even within our secular and faith communities; in our schools; in our public and private institutions. Ideas of the kind of transformative change that is just and compassionate and caring are left behind in the dust. In the throes of our own anger, anxiety, and fear, retreat into our own insular communities. And that means we’re less likely to be effective in base-building efforts that require us to step outside of our own comfort zones to engage directly with others across differences.
We sometimes feel so angry and threatened that we, too, forget the humanity/struggles of people who don’t already agree with us. We fail to make distinctions between the intentions of the strategic architects of the Right and the many reasons people who are fearful for their own futures may be drawn to the Right’s scapegoating and fearmongering.
The Bully Boy culture can exist anywhere; it can corrupt any of us. It reinforces the idea that the only way forward is to extinguish and silence the voices or destroy the reputations of those who don’t agree with us. Some of us come to regard any notion of incremental, strategic change as worthless, and we may denounce anyone who believes that deep-seated change requires relentless persistence, combined with bold imagination, over long periods of time.
This is especially so in a time when even the histories of struggle for social justice in this country and elsewhere are left out of or deleted from school curricula because it is seen as “divisive” and “un-American.” It is especially so in a time that encourages people to expect instant gratification through consumerism. And it is especially so in a time that too often confines political activism to flame wars or insular conversations or intergroup bloodlettings in the blogosphere and Internet petition signing, while “boots on the ground” grassroots community organizing is neglected.
It’s instructive, I think, to reflect on the first stirrings toward abolition of slavery in the United States, a struggle that began long before the formal abolition societies were formed in the early 19th century.
Was the struggle not worth it because it took so long, or because there were so many legal setbacks? Was it not worth it because in the wake of abolition of slavery, the prison industrial complex emerged, first making use of the racist convict-leasing system, and later, mass incarceration, to produce profits from the imprisonment of so many, who are overwhelmingly people of color?
In fact, the challenge to enlarge our capacity for justice and determination to fight for it never ends. Victories won may become the targets of new means of attack. That’s precisely why we might do well to reflect on and learn from the tenacity and vision of, say, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, The Grimke Sisters. And then learn from those, like Angela Y. Davis, who carry on the latest version of the Abolition struggle today.
Changing the Atmosphere
If we want to change the atmosphere, we have to begin telling a compelling national Story that, ultimately, becomes more powerful than all the Right’s attempts to further the Age of Enmity. A prophetic Story that exposes hard truths about the human, economic, environmental, and spiritual costs exacted by the Bully Boys and massive systems of injustice, even as it invokes people’s deepest common aspirations for a decent life, in which we are all treated as worthy people, with inherent rights and human dignity. A Story that both incises and heals the wounds with a powerful combination of facts and narrative.
A Story that, finally, calls out the best, and strongest, in us, and not the weakest and worst.
A Story that does not rely on sentiment or emotional manipulation in order to raise funds or give people a simplistic notion of complex, historically entrenched problems.
How do we even begin to imagine this? In one sense, we begin by noting that the archetypes invoked by the Right are all ones of control, domination, danger, and fear: god of war, patriarchal father, submissive woman, avenging/punishing god, predator, protector, warrior-hero, All-Powerful White Man, child in need of strong discipline, intruder, thief, murderer. The energies associated with these images and themes run through every policy proposal put forth and campaign waged by the Right. These are the threads of Story that reach people so powerfully at an unconscious level; old images and symbols buried deep within us. I believe that many people are simply drawn to the Right for the sense of vicarious power they draw from the association, for the permission to cling tenaciously to belief in supremacy and subordination.
So what’s our story? Do you know what it is? I sure don’t. I can list issues we care about until the cows come home. I can do a choral reading of organizational fundraising letters that misrepresent the complexity of what we’re facing. But where’s the coherent story and message? What’s the framework upon which all of the facts we offer to challenge and overwhelm the lies and distortions of the Right are arrayed?
Can you name any archetypal resonances associated with our overall agenda that help convey a deeper, better meaning to folks? I can’t. Not unless it’s Keystone Kops.
I do not suggest that we adopt the flip side of the Right’s archetypes. No. If our Story is real; if it has coherence; if the different parts of it (including the facts) all feel organically like part of a greater vision, then the archetypal resonance would emerge from that and might include such energies/symbols as the determined and compassionate warrior; the good and generous parents and other caregivers; the curious, playful, and much-loved child; the fearless and compassionate woman; the truth teller in a time of lies; the delightful and caring energy of Eros; the true friend; the good neighbor; the courageous community that stands together against oppression; the wise elder; the healers and the helpers; the ones who so beautifully shatter gender binaries. And, for once, we might invoke nature and the lives of animals and other wildlife into the vision and lifeblood of our Story. The overall resonance here is compassion, caring, collective determination, and interdependence.
Why is this important? Because to really believe that great change is possible, people must in some way be able to envision it, or at least feel the stirrings of real possibility, real goodness, in their hearts as well as in their minds; in their unconscious as well as conscious selves. And it’s important because while we have more than enough facts on hand to discredit all of the Right’s assertions and alarm-mongering on any given issue, facts alone don’t win over myth. The facts must be tied to narrative, to symbols, to compelling images that are evoked visually or activated through the power of narrative. And that narrative must have integrity: it must speak to the root causes of injustice, violence, and oppression, not illusory causes that are merely symptoms of the deeper problems.
Think about all of the facts we can muster about the violence of the prison industrial complex. Imagine us on a television show reciting those facts to an audience already deeply primed to fear the mythic, demonized Big Black Bogeyman Out to Get You.
The Right knows this. And it knows that the more political chaos it creates, the deeper the national hunger will be for someone, anyone, who can control the chaos. Particularly when there is no strong, countervailing energy to undercut the deliberate creation of chaos.
The big question is why don’t we also know this? Why is “our” media – think Current TV or union media – hardly ever consumed by anybody but those who are already true believers? Why can’t we do much better in placing the facts – both damning and liberatory – we have within a compelling narrative?
A Story must be so much more than a list of facts and issues and slogans and policy proposals. It must reflect who we are as a collective movement of people that is larger than any political party; larger than any single conception of “liberal,” “progressive,” or “left.”
It’s a Story that must be told not only in speeches and editorials and blog posts, but also in performing arts venues as well as political arenas and in a million different ways, via posters and songs and theatre and novels and dance.
I don’t mean that we should substitute facts for Pure Emotion. A politics of pure emotion produces fascism, or political pornography, or both. That’s what we’re getting from the Right and its hangers-on. But facts alone, dissociated from Story and the ability to engage in real conversation across differences and about painful matters, won’t prevail; they aren’t enough, by themselves, to pick the winners who will name the age.
So, again: what’s our Story? And I do mean “our.” This isn’t a responsibility that belongs solely to President Obama or the Democratic Party or any other single individual or group. It belongs to all of us who hunger for a more caring, compassionate, humane, and generous society. Don’t expect politicians to go out on limbs for change that don’t enjoy deep, grassroots, community-based support.
What are the images and words, the constellating archetypes, that convey the kind of Big Facts, Big Meaning, Big Ideas, Big Energies that help encourage people to think about how to work together in new ways to dismantle historic forms of oppression and create that better society? That help them find new reservoirs of determination and courage within themselves to start speaking up and taking their own action?
What is the overarching Story that runs like an unstoppable energy source through all of our issues, giving them coherence and interrelated meaning so that we can no longer be pit against one another in our struggles for rights, recognition, and economic stability?
What kind of Story gives people the power to say not only “no” to injustice, but “yes!” to bold new ways of thinking about creating and sustaining caring communities?
I don’t have The Answer, and neither do you. Yet. But I do know that the Story won’t come from focus groups or the insularity and contemptuousness so prevalent in so much of the political blogosphere.
Here are some Big Ideas on my list. Which ones are on yours?
- White supremacy has crumbled. A vibrant multiracialism is as much an institutional and governmental norm as a demographic reality.
- Universal human rights, inclusive of health care, education, housing, decent food, religious freedom, reproductive justice, and economic justice, are the norm.
- The concept of universal rights itself enlarges from just “human” to include all sentient beings as well as environmental and ecological integrity.
- Transformational/healing justice replaces retributive justice structures, helps to reduce community violence, abolishes the prison industrial complex, and begins to undermine the summons to war.
- “Interdependence” increasingly is understood to be a social, economic, ecological, and environmental reality. (EarthLight offers another way of thinking about this in these Ten Principles of Earth Democracy.)
- Safety and security are envisioned within a context of universal rights
On my way toward these ends, I’ll be working my butt off in the 2012 campaigns, both locally and nationally. To the extent I can, I contribute to campaigns and organizations I believe in. I’m often active in neighborhood/community organizing where I live. But I’ll also be committing myself to writing and other work that goes far beyond electoral politics and issue-organizing; work that, I hope, can make a small contribution toward the defeat – ignominious, I hope – of the Bully Boys and their dreams of mob spirit and the absolute rule of the white and the authoritarians and the wealthy in the Age of Enmity.
I no longer want to be only reactive to the Right and to Big Money, and I hope you don’t, either. That doesn’t mean we don’t protest their reprehensible actions. It means we go far beyond protest, with a relentless determination to build new bridges across old differences; to, as Barry Lopez says, call out to each other in the night. That’s how collective determination is created.